IT leadership: How to find more ways to pay it forward

In the post-pandemic world, good coaching is about speaking less and listening more, writes Novant Health CIO Onyeka Nchege. Here's how he creates opportunities for his teammates
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Two employees weighing heart and brain for emotional intelligence

Years ago, when I first started my career, I received an email containing a joke that I found funny. I forwarded it to a coworker, who then forwarded it along to others. One day, following a six-month intensive management training program, I was called into the vice president’s office. He explained that he was forwarded an email with a joke, and while he found the joke funny, he didn’t pass it along.

“I want you to think about this,” he said. “If this were to fall into the wrong hands and offend someone, would you be willing to be known as the person who perpetuated it?” That coaching moment has stuck with me ever since, and it’s one I think of when I find opportunities of my own to coach others.

CIOs now have opportunities to coach a wide variety of people across the organization.

CIOs are in a unique position today. Our roles have been elevated in light of the pandemic, and many of us are enjoying a truly consultative partnership with the organization. Looking across the enterprise, we have opportunities to coach a wide variety of people – from members of our team to our peers and other stakeholders. Let’s take advantage of this.

The value of active listening 

Good coaching is about more than giving advice. Active listening, observing, and asking questions are even more important than sharing wisdom every chance you get. Before the pandemic, when conversations were more regularly face-to-face, noticing social and physical cues during conversations and truly focusing on what the individual was saying was easier. Coaching in the post-pandemic world looks a little different.

[ Want more real-world advice on coaching? Read also: 5 ways for CIOs to embrace a coaching role. ] 

Today, as Zoom meetings and video calls continue to be the primary form of communication, it’s critical to hone those active listening skills. For instance, you might think it’s fine to grab a drink while someone is speaking – but in those few moments that you’re distracted, you’re not actually hearing what’s being said, nor what’s left unsaid. Face-to-face conversations force you to dial in your attention, but it’s easy to lose that focus when meetings are virtual.

When I meet with someone virtually, I minimize distractions by first resolving to be present in every conversation. With the amount of digital distraction we have in today’s world, we need to commit to focusing on ourselves and those we are meeting with. I stay in the moment by setting my phone aside, turning off notifications, and closing other windows and programs on my machines.

While there are certainly some challenges to coaching others virtually, there are advantages as well. Some introverts, I’ve found, tend to feel more comfortable expressing their opinions during video calls because they’re not physically surrounded by others, and this puts them more at ease.

This post-pandemic world has reminded me that good coaching is about speaking less and listening more. Sometimes that’s tough when you want to impart knowledge onto others. But every moment doesn’t need to be a teaching moment – sometimes people just want you to listen.

How I create coaching opportunities

As CIO, you must foster an environment in which people feel empowered and encouraged to generate ideas that will advance your organization’s digital strategy. Great coaching is critical to achieving this goal. I’ve worked to create this environment in a few ways:

1. Hold roundtable discussions

I’m a big fan of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, so I started holding roundtable discussions. The idea behind these is to abandon all ranks and titles and set the stage for equitable conversation with one another. I explain that these meetings are not my meetings – they’re ours, and they’re free of retribution or repercussions. This creates psychological safety and encourages people to participate. These roundtables are small – 8 to 10 people – and these days we hold them via Zoom. 

Understanding that healthy dialogue is encouraged and celebrated lets team members know their voice is critical in our ongoing success.

For a roundtable to truly be effective, we must make sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak. We use a technique I learned years ago called “Council Mode,” which gives everyone a few minutes to share and speak with no rebuttal or challenge. We are not always going to agree, but understanding that healthy dialogue is encouraged and celebrated lets team members know their voice is critical in our ongoing success. Importantly, roundtables should be centered around the participants, not a presentation or monologue from one person.

2. Follow up and follow through

Equally as important, I make sure we follow through with the ideas that are generated and agreed upon at the roundtables. This sends the message to those who took the time to participate that their input is valued. You don’t want people to think these meetings are for naught – that’s when people shut down. Creating a culture of psychological safety with your teams is key to making sure all feel their voice is heard and their comments are important.

3. Offer leadership opportunities regularly

Last but not least, I actively look for ways to share my role and responsibilities with others. I always tell the vice presidents who report to me that if there’s an opportunity to sit in my seat and do some of the things I do, I want to provide that for them. This is valuable for aspiring CIOs on my team because you don’t often get the experience of doing this job until you have it. This gives them the opportunity to think beyond their current role, shows them that I am invested in their growth, and provides me with another way to coach others in big-picture thinking and leadership skills.

How to be a better coach

If you want to be a better coach to your team, here are a few things that you should consider: First, you need to create the space to do so. Don’t just talk about coaching; be intentional about creating coaching opportunities and improving your coaching skills. We all have great intentions, but if you don’t carve out the time or space to actually make it happen, it will never happen. The roundtables, for example, take a lot of time to put together, and I’m intentional about setting aside that time to plan them.

Second, remind yourself to pause and listen. When CIOs are in a room, there’s an expectation that they will know and have an opinion on everything. Sometimes you might feel obligated to say something. But silence is ok – if you don’t know, you don’t know. Find and empower others around you who might know. Step into the coaching space, be intentional about it, and create the space to make it happen.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Each one, teach one.” Years ago, I was impacted by the coaching that the vice president gave me when I was at my first job, and it’s been important to me that I take every opportunity to pay that forward if I want to be an effective coach.

Recently, I was in a Zoom meeting and the presenter paused to ask everyone on the call to reflect on these questions: “What did you hear? What do you think about what you heard? How do you feel about what you heard?”

While people were responding to his coaching, he sent me a chat message asking if I recognized those words. I did – they are the questions I asked him when I coached him in my role as CIO. In creating an intentional space for coaching, creating opportunities and a safe space for others, I have been able to impact others to become coaches.

Years ago, I made the decision to pay forward the coaching that was given to me. Today, others are paying that coaching forward too.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Onyeka Nchege
Onyeka Nchege is SVP, Chief Information Officer for Novant Health, a super-regional healthcare system with one of the largest medical groups in the US.