John D. Hughes, the founder and CEO of Gnu Talent spoke at the March CEOtoCEO event, which marked the first foray of CEOtoCEO into the world of online live stream presentations. John described the proper mindset required for IT professionals to lead technology departments to effectively leverage technology to actually achieve business goals. He also explained how leaders drive the company culture by modeling the behavior and expectations that become adopted by the rest of the workforce.
Three Emotional Qualities of a Leader
John began with a look into the emotional qualities of successful leaders, noting that three key qualities were important for leaders to cultivate in order to lead effectively. These qualities are: vision, trust, and humility.
Vision is the ability to find a compelling solution or strategy that solves a real problem, either within the company or in the world, and then convey that solution or strategy to others to get them invested in its completion. Leaders with a lack of vision will not be able to get their employees engaged, due to the solution or strategy not being compelling enough, or to the fact that they cannot communicate why employees should become personally invested in it. For leaders who aren't getting high levels of employee engagement, John suggested that they strive to become more vulnerable, to indicate to employees that they are human beings affected by emotion. This encourages employees to share their concerns, complaints, ideas, and aspirations in a productive way which gives leaders a means to connect with their employees while discovering problems or opportunities that otherwise might be kept secret.
Arrogance and fear are the two most common obstacles keeping people from allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Inviting open and honest criticism from employees is a simple and practical step leaders can take toward becoming more vulnerable. While vulnerability seems like a weakness to most leaders, it is strongly correlated with approachability, which is essential in a high-functioning organization that can fulfill business missions efficiently.
Trust is the ability to give a responsibility to a person and leave them alone to fulfill it without micro-managing or checking in on the details at every turn. Trust is what allows leaders to scale their expertise, and that of their employees, to maximum impact. Trust is the most difficult emotional quality for leaders to cultivate in themselves. To many leaders, cultivating trust seems like the opposite of what they should be doing when managing employees. This mindset operates under the idea that employees need to be herded into effectiveness with constant supervision.
Trust in the competence of your employees allows them to develop abilities for self-directed work, collaboration, and leadership. Trusting employees is essential for growing a base of future managers and leaders in the company. John provided a metaphor for how a trusting leader can keep a complex operation running by likening trust to how a plate spinner can keep dozens of plates simultaneously spinning on poles without them falling off. The objective is to keep as many plates spinning as possible, which requires that every plate receive occasional attention to keep it spinning, but the attention is a minimal "check in" to keep the plate spinning. With employees, this equates to providing the necessary oversight to keep each working productively while maintaining an overview of the whole picture at all times so the work being done can be scaled as large as possible.
Humility is the ability to admit flaws, mistakes, and failures. This emotional trait is important for the leader's own growth as well as the cultivation of a productive mindset for employees. Leaders who refuse to admit their own mistakes create a workplace culture that discourages the admission of failure and ownership of mistakes. Since failure is such a far superior teacher than success, ownership of failure is essential to capitalizing on the opportunity for learning and growth it provides. A company culture that embraces the ownership of failure is one that is less averse to risk, because such a culture will become adept at gaining knowledge, personal growth, or opportunity from every failure. In effect, a culture of humility can make a company bolder in its aspirations and business strategies.
Every Project Must Be Tied to a Problem
One of the most important lessons of John's presentation was that technology is not The solution, even if it is part of the solution. He recounted that as a CIO it was a common experience of his that other departments would purchase a software "solution" to try to solve a problem that they were often incapable of precisely describing. Often a new software tool designed for a particular aspect of business will be seen as "essential" by a department in a company, and will be purchased without any concern for how it will be implemented into their current operations.
John advised that every strategic IT project be tied to a strategic business initiative (whether for growth or operations), which is in turn tied to a clearly defined business problem. Failing to clearly define the problem you are trying to address will result in resources used inefficiently to achieve a solution that may not be ideal or even appropriate. The process of precisely defining the problem should involve asking as many questions of the stake holders as possible. The question-asking process is where the "Aha!" moment happens, because a question asked with a genuine desire for understanding comes from a mind unburdened with an answer it has already come up with beforehand. What the question-asking process ideally does is "complicate" the problem during the course of questioning, thereby decreasing the viability of any solutions that were not thought through comprehensively. The solution does not need to be sophisticated or complex, but it should take into account the full complexity of the problem.
Every strategic project provides an opportunity for an organization to test its ability to solve a business problem, making them a valuable tool for developing strong teams and identifying future leaders. John recommended that businesses keep a "portfolio" of strategic projects, and further encouraged that a larger portfolio of projects was better. A large portfolio of projects requires the team to identify priorities while providing a constant spirit of forward momentum, rather than one of static maintenance.
Making a Vision Statement
John mentioned that a good vision statement is important element to engagement of everyone on the team, but that teams generally don't make good vision statements. Vision statements usually come from the vision of individuals, but they must meet certain conditions to be compelling to groups. The key requirements for a compelling vision statement are honesty, brevity, and clarity. To ensure that your vision statement has met these requirements, it should be shared with the companyâ€”ideally with a genuine sense of humilityâ€”so that employees from all levels of the company can provide feedback. This will help develop the vision statement into one that is understandable and has real meaning for those it will represent.
John remarked that while conventional wisdom states that vision statements should be achievable, one of the most impactful leaders of all time, Steve Jobs, was quoted as saying, "We're here to make a dent in the universe." Steve Jobs got employees engaged with the vision of Apple because he was an incredible visionary who continuously changed the computer landscape over decades, but for those who are not gifted with such immense vision, a humble and honest approach can result in a vision that will be embraced by employees and drive them to lead others to see it fulfilled.