Encouraging a change-ready mindset: 7 tips from CIOs

Top industry CIOs share real-world advice on how to help guide teams through change and uncertainty
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Change is a constant in IT – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Fear and resistance are natural responses, says John Manis, SVP-CIO for CHRISTUS Health – and they can stand in the way of progress.

“Change, even for the better, is difficult,” says Manis. “In my experience, resistance to change is most often based in fear; people perceive change as a potential threat. Though they will rarely vocalize their fears, they may be privately or unconsciously concerned that they are incapable of making the necessary change; that they may be unable to learn a new process, a new procedure, or a new application; that they may be slowed or exposed as inefficient; or even that their position – and their livelihood – may be made redundant or obsolete. Resistance is a natural human response to a perceived threat.”

We asked CIOs who recently won the 2022 Dallas CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards how they help their teams get past the fear and uncertainty of change.

[ What leadership challenges and opportunities are CIOs looking forward to this year? Read CIO role: 5 key opportunities for IT leaders in 2022. ]

From encouraging experiments to explaining the “why” to making failure OK, these leaders share the tips they’ve used to encourage a change-ready mindset throughout their organizations.

Leadership CIO of the Year

Robert Dixon

Robert Dixon, retired CIO, PepsiCo: We live in a VUCA world – full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. A world of unprecedented disruption, the likes of which very few have witnessed. Change is VUCA. Your leadership skills will be tested in unprecedented ways, but you can thrive on the change and disruption by embracing a few principles:

  • Put people first because they’re your most important asset
  • Build a guiding coalition of multi-disciplined thought leaders who can create pathways for change
  • Be agile to manage unpredictable events as they occur
  • Generate short-term wins prioritizing speed over perfection
  • Over-communicate across your entire ecosystem of stakeholders because it takes time for people to “get it.”

Super Global CIO of the Year

Maya Leibman

Maya Leibman, EVP-CIO, American Airlines: My mom used to say, “No one likes change except for a wet baby.” True or not, here are a few of the things we’ve done at AA to help us all better embrace change:

Encourage an “experiment” mindset so people feel motivated to try things. Try to make people feel like scientists.

Ensure people feel safe even if (or better said, especially when) the experiments don’t work. We need to develop Edison’s mindset of: “I didn’t fail. I just found a thousand ways a lightbulb doesn’t work.”

Rely heavily on data to inform the next step we take – abandon, pivot, iterate, etc. The data helps take emotion out of the decision.

Celebrate experiments and change every chance we get.

We certainly don’t do this perfectly and many of us are still resistant to change. It takes a lot of effort, vigilance, and leadership (and maybe some dry diapers) to create a culture that enables change.

Global CIO of the Year

Jon Manis

Jon Manis, SVP-CIO, CHRISTUS Health: As technology professionals, one of our primary responsibilities is to facilitate efficiencies and improvements as agents, leaders, and champions of change. To be successful, we must become active listeners in order to help overcome fear and dispel the perception of threat.

I find it most helpful to address potential concerns up-front and at every meeting or occasion, publicly and privately. As champions of change, we must be visible and vocal leaders, exuding and inspiring confidence. We must be open, honest, and transparent. It is best to engage and actively involve those who will be most impacted by the change very early in the process.

Familiarity will help make the planned change less intimidating, and active involvement in the change process is foundational to change ownership and a successful transition.

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year

Jon Manis

Joe Longo, SVP-CIO, Parkland Health: Within the IT industry, we typically deal with a highly dynamic environment, but the pandemic encouraged and forced the world to embrace change at a different pace.

The change that my IT teams were experiencing was more pronounced and rapid over the past two years, with heavy demands for IT services. During this time, it was imperative to solicit feedback on an equally rapid frequency, much more often than before, to check in and understand where the pressures were mounting.

We leveraged virtual meeting forums and online surveys to provide multiple media options. These more frequent check-ins helped me recognize who was hitting their max or burning out and presented the proper time to suggest time off. It also offered staff a forum to suggest opportunities for increased efficiency or relief mechanisms like work from home or rotating shifts.

Although change is uncomfortable, we often leveraged the occasion to explain “the why” behind the change, emphasize the Parkland mission, and the IT purpose to care for the people who care for our patients.

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Brett Lansing

Brett Lansing, CIO, AccentCare: I remember years ago after a long day of skiing, I overheard a person say, “I had a great day skiing; I didn’t fall once.” The other person replied, “Did you challenge yourself and try anything new while skiing?”

Falling down is okay; it means you are trying something new and learning. It’s how we all become better. In IT, new technology, a new process, or a new organizational construct can all be uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable is how we advance as an organization and as individuals.

I encourage my entire IT organization to challenge the status quo where the status quo needs to be challenged. Always remember this: “Disrupt or be disrupted.” We must drive positive change to keep pace with a changing world. As leaders, we can encourage a change-ready mindset by leading by example. Encourage everyone on your team to get out of their comfort zone. Great things will happen!

Large Corporate CIO of the Year

Nagarajan Muthusamy

Nagarajan "Samy" Muthusamy, CTO-CIO, ReliableParts: We decided to consolidate multiple business systems to reduce operating costs and gain efficiency, but rallying the employees behind the consolidation strategy was very challenging. So, we adopted a multi-pronged approach.

We tied the change to the company’s purpose and our core value. We took time to explain what necessitated this change, why it is important to the company, what are the likely benefits and what a failure scenario will look like if we don’t do it. Having an open, transparent, clear, and honest conversation with employees is the best approach to building trust and bringing employees along.

We believed that employees would get excited about change if they had a say and stake in it. So, we collected suggestions from many employees and tweaked our approach to get their buy-in. Even though we set KPIs to measure progress, we understood that missteps would occur, so we made it a point to embrace action and not punish mistakes. We rewarded employees who accepted the change from the get-go with key roles in the migration project and made them the champion, evangelist, and catalyst for change. Suffice to say, we built enough support to complete the project ahead of time.

Corporate CIO of the Year

Mike Bullock

Mike Bullock, VP, Rangers Baseball LLC: I think that working in the context of continuous change is something that almost all technology professionals are already accustomed to. I think the trick is either empowering technology professionals to make day-to-day decisions or to create opportunities for them to influence the planning and policies that allow them to manage change.

I believe that change is uncomfortable when we are simply passengers without any ability to steer. Giving technology professionals a voice, trusting their judgment, and leveraging their skills and experience to manage and adapt to change makes change a lot less uncomfortable. Empowerment is important.

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

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.