Eight Strategies for Coaching Divisional CIOs

Eight Strategies for Coaching Divisional CIOs

How one corporate CIO persuades rather than commands.

When Dana Deasy became vice president and CIO of the Americas for Siemens in 1999, he harboured no illusions that the job would be easy. His main responsibility has been coordinating the efforts of 22 CIOs across North and South America who don't report to him. Those CIOs are under pressure to put the interests of their own operating unit or region first. They equate anything corporate with overhead, intervention and loss of control. The CIOs all insist their business units are unique. After all, they point out, Siemens is a conglomerate of more than 14 independent and wildly diverse operating units. Deasy knew that to lead this bunch toward collaboration, common solutions and economies of scale, he'd have to be more coach than emperor.

Deasy had spent plenty of time on the other side of the corporate fence, most recently as a divisional CIO at General Motors. "It was my job to do the very same thing CIOs are doing to me today: to try to convey to corporate my view on why we needed to be unique," he recalls. His experiences, both good and bad, as a business unit CIO shaped his coaching strategies, which are designed to address the operating unit CIOs' inherent scepticism of all things corporate.

Coaching Tip 1: Listen

People can't be coached effectively if they don't believe they're being understood. Therefore Deasy contends that the number-one skill of an effective leader is the ability to genuinely listen - and to do so with a great deal of empathy. "They really have to believe that you're relating to them, that you really are understanding their situation, their problem," he says. "You can't just sit there and say, Yeah, yeah, yeah, but now let me tell you what I need you to do."

As CIO of GM's locomotive group, Deasy felt frustrated when corporate types would seemingly ask for his opinion because they needed to include it in their documentation and check his name off a list, not because they were really going to take his perspective into consideration. He vowed he'd never do that to someone else if he ever went corporate.

Coaching Tip 2: Be Honest

It's important to acknowledge the natural tension in the corporate-divisional relationship. Deasy doesn't try to pretend that he's some sort of corporate Santa Claus. "I don't think there's anything wrong with an effective coach standing right up front and saying: 'Let me tell you where we're going to have problems, conflicts, fundamental disagreements. And let me tell how I think we can establish some guidelines on how we'll work through this and always respect each other's point of view'," he says.

Before launching into a difficult discussion with an operating unit CIO, Deasy warns him that they're about to have a conversation that's going to cause tension. "I want you to consider doing something that will give you a feeling that you're going to lose control," he tells the CIO. "You're going to be asked to be assimilated into something larger, and you may not see at first the financial value of doing so." That sort of honesty helps diffuse the tension, increasing the likelihood that the divisional CIO will be able to move beyond an emotional response and focus on the business issue at hand.

Coaching Tip 3: Avoid Power Plays

Deasy says it's tempting to just say: 'Come on guys, enough of this nonsense, we're just going to do this.' But playing the corporate power card is a risky proposition. "If you play that card, you can work as hard as you want to re-establish credibility, but you'll probably never get it back completely," he says.

Coaching Tip 4: Create Trust

The people you're trying to coach won't be inclined to listen or respect your point of view unless they're convinced you truly have their best interests at heart. "Yes, you're trying to do what's best for the corporation as a whole, but if they really believe you are their trusted adviser, they will be willing to listen and be coached," says Deasy. On the other hand, "if they believe you have a hidden agenda, they're going to fight you all the way". To that end, soliciting input from coachees before you make decisions is essential to creating an environment of trust.

After three years on the job, Deasy knows he's making progress gaining the CIOs' trust because it no longer takes weeks to convince them to get together to bounce around an idea. Now most agree to meet for a discussion after just one or two phone calls - and are willing to listen to each other and work together when they do convene. Perhaps more telling, the CIOs are now calling him more often to confide and ask his advice on sensitive topics.

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