IT leadership: You gotta have H.E.A.R.T.

What sets the best leaders apart? Humility, empathy, adaptability, resiliency, and transparency. Top execs discuss how H.E.A.R.T. defines their leadership style
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Today’s best digital leaders have adapted their leadership playbooks for the times. If you go back and listen to the Tech Whisperers podcast episodes, you’ll hear the same themes and the same leadership wisdom over and over again. What’s the common denominator?

Humility, Empathy, Adaptability, Resilience, and Transparency: H.E.A.R.T.

There’s something palpable in how the CIOs I've spoken to balance high EQ leadership, holding people accountable, having the hard conversations, and delivering results. These are business-first executives who anticipate, innovate, and drive results – and they don’t get distracted by bright shiny objects.

I asked five of my recent Tech Whisperers guests to share how they are leading with H.E.A.R.T. On August 10, we will discuss each of these leadership practices with DXC Technology CIO Kristie Grinnell.


The best leaders leave their egos at the door. They lead through influence, not positional power. They listen more and speak less.

Humble leaders also have an unwavering passion for learning. This is a requirement in a constantly changing world.

[ Also read What transformational leaders do differently. ]

My guest Larry Quinlan, a Hall of Fame CIO who led 10,000 technologists as the former Global CIO at Deloitte, says humility has to come from a platform of strength. It takes confidence in yourself and in your team to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, but you do have the ability to lead and create an environment “where the answers will flow.”

Quinlan sees parallels in another passion of his: scuba diving. Each dive demands a heightened sense of awareness, and that means he has to let go of the arrogance of experience.

“For me, leadership service is just like that,” he says. “The mental preparation of not getting too arrogant is the same as that mental preparation of learning to listen to people, of learning to care, of learning to get feedback, of learning to understand how you just came across to your people or your customers.”


Today’s top CXOs recognize that engagement is not a team sport. Every person brings their own motivations, perspectives, background, and experiences to the table. At the same time, each one of us is dealing with a host of other things in our lives outside the workplace. Successful leaders recognize this and are able to balance care and compassion with holding people accountable and delivering results.

Michael W. Smith, CIO of The Estée Lauder Companies, is the kind of technology leader who’s recognized as much for his empathy, mentorship, and commitment to advancing opportunity, diversity, and inclusion in the technology space as he is for his visionary expertise in driving transformation and innovation. He believes both of these aspects of leadership are critical to the business.

“As a leader, it’s important to understand that no one person, group, or culture has all the knowledge, skills, or information necessary for success in business,” Smith says. “That’s why at ELC we always say that people are our greatest asset. Diversity – not just in backgrounds but in experiences and perspectives – results in greater innovation and better problem-solving across an organization.”

"No one person, group, or culture has all the knowledge, skills, or information necessary for success in business.”

To get the benefits of that diversity, he adds, leaders have to invest in getting to know people.

“You have to take the time to nurture your team, to acknowledge their strengths and opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, to celebrate their success. When you invest in getting to know your people, you share in their wins and you feel their success on another level.”

In today’s tight labor market, the competition for technology talent is fierce and employees have plenty of options. Executives like Smith are building the kinds of cultures that not only attract great talent but keep it.


IT legend Charlie Feld likes to say, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to hate extinction.”

That’s especially true today, with change coming at us rapidly, continuously, and from all directions. Equipped with more than five decades of experience, Feld predicts the next five years will be the most chaotic we’ve seen.

With a track record of successful “answer-the-call moments,” Angela Yochem is the epitome of an adaptive leader. Today she is the EVP/Chief Transformation and Digital Officer at Novant Health. She recently took on the additional P&L responsibilities as the GM/COO of Novant Health Enterprises. She has stretched herself throughout her career, running various businesses and functional areas in multiple industries and serving on a variety of boards.

[ Want more expert insights on leadership, strategy, career development, and more? Download the Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

“This has been a turbulent time to be building careers, teams, or companies even before the latest round of challenges,” Yochem says. “It’s easy to imagine how unprepared we would be feeling if we’d focused our entire career in one type of business or in one particular market as new entrants from other industries threaten to eat our lunch.”

Adaptable leaders build a personal brand as “technical athletes,” or Swiss Army knives, able to play the role that is needed for the team and the company to be successful. To do this, they stay coachable and hungry.

It’s not about managing through change or simply surviving, Yochem says, but leaning in and adapting to the new context, seeing the opportunities within the change, and then envisioning how to make them a reality.

“This sort of leadership is natural for team members who possess an abundance of diverse experiences and have found ways to achieve remarkable milestones in a variety of challenging conditions,” Yochem explains. “These are the leaders I like to hire. I like to work with people who can recognize when their context has changed, who don’t cling to prior plans if they’ve been overcome by events, who encourage open discussion of ideas and options from their teams and who can see the opportunities that change provides and lean into them, even if it requires derailing existing plans.”


It’s not easy to build resilience muscles when you’re right in the middle of a tough challenge. That’s why Northwestern Mutual CIO Neal Sample says it’s best to practice resilience before it’s needed – just like any other business skill.

Sample started building his resilience muscle as a national college debate champion. He continued to challenge his comfort zone professionally, starting his career with digital-native companies Yahoo and eBay and pivoting to Fortune behemoths American Express, Express Scripts, and Northwestern Mutual.

“For decades now, creating healthier cultures and improving outcomes through resilience practice has been shown to work,” Sample says. “The good news for leaders is that resilience is a teachable skill, not just an innate trait.”

Leaders need to encourage their people to stretch beyond their comfort zones so they can build and benefit from these new muscles. One of the ways Sample encourages his people to move outside their comfort zones is to lead with a motto of progress over perfection.

"I favor action prior to perfecting a plan,” he says, because accelerating action “invariably leads you to a better place.” At the same time, this approach makes it safe for people to take risks and recognize that perfection isn’t the only goal – and that failure is a natural part of the process.

Sample urges IT leaders to get intentional about improving their team’s resilience and make fostering resilience part of their leadership playbook. Building resiliency is never easy while you are going through it, but once you have it, the benefits are huge.

Today's best leaders are intentionally vulnerable, because transparency builds trust and loyalty – the foundation of any high-functioning team or partnership.


Today’s best leaders are intentionally vulnerable, because transparency builds trust and loyalty – the foundation of any high-functioning team or partnership.

“Transparency can also be about gaining commitment to rally around big problems or unplanned strategic surprises, which often require quick pivots,” says independent board member Julie Cullivan, the former Chief Technology and Chief People Officer at Forescout and FireEye. “And it can be about delivering feedback to develop our future technology leaders. I have seen new teams evolve into high-performing teams because trust and transparency were core values.

“Transparency also requires courage because often what needs to be said will not be welcomed by the recipient(s),” she continues. “You must be willing to communicate very sensitive and undesirable messages that others will not want to accept. Doing or saying the right thing and at the right time is never wrong.”

Transparent leaders also aren’t afraid to admit when they fail. That’s not always easy to do, but it creates a powerful ripple effect by encouraging their people to stretch, take risks, and overcome fear to act with courage.

“As both a technology and people leader, you must be willing to communicate very sensitive or personal or undesirable messages that others will not want to accept,” Cullivan says. “But doing or saying the right thing at the right time is never wrong.”

Leading through the challenges of tomorrow is going to take a different approach and playbook. Are you ready to lead with H.E.A.R.T.?

Subscribe to the Tech Whisperers podcast for more insights and advice from the leadership playbooks of the best digital leaders.

Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts is CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting. In this role, Dan leads the firm that has been known since 1984 for “Developing the Human Side of Technology.” His team has helped more than 3,500 IT organizations build a world class culture, a high-performing workforce and a differentiated talent brand.