Three skills you need to get the job done.
Even if you prepare for contingencies, nothing happens the way you expect. You've seen this in sports: A game plan is formulated and athletes drill to execute flawlessly. Then game day comes and a star player gets hurt or the other team changes its approach. Great teams and exceptional leaders rise to the occasion. They are able to execute their plans because they establish close partnerships, they act decisively, and most important of all, they stay focused on their goals.
My first few columns focused on getting a lay of the land (CIO April) and building a great team (CIO May). Although these are critical pregame activities, the goal of every leader is to have an impact. Even teams with great skills and high levels of dedication can fail to have an impact because of their inability to form successful partnerships with stakeholders, act decisively or stay focused. These last three competencies determine your legacy. Here are examples from my career in which these competencies made the difference for me and my teams.
Partnerships Need Reinforcement
When I was CIO at Frito-Lay in the mid-1980s, we deployed handheld computers for 10,000 route salesmen. Executing this project required establishing and maintaining close partnerships with numerous stakeholders.
Back then, mobile technology was still largely a dream. This was particularly true in a rugged environment like a route truck. Temperatures of 120 degrees in the US Southwest and 30 below in the upper Midwest could melt and freeze the ink in the printers. In order to ensure that the solution worked in extreme weather conditions, we focused on two "Model Divisions": one in Texas and the other in Minnesota.
Because most of the technology was being integrated for the first time under these conditions, many vendors needed to participate. The IT department acted as a "general contractor", coordinating the vendors with Frito-Lay salespeople, managers and our customers (for instance, grocery store managers). We had to make them our partners and inspire them to stay with the project when it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
The motivation for the project was that servicing customers had become complex. The paperwork that the customer and the salesperson had to deal with was time-consuming and often full of errors. Salespeople frequently had to finish this paperwork at night, at their kitchen tables. To provide the team with a vision of the future, we produced an eight-minute film re-enacting these cumbersome tasks and demonstrating how business would be improved if we got the project done. Once we deployed a few systems, we added to the film testimonials from the salespeople who were using them and showed the film again. When other salespeople heard the feedback from their peers, it cemented their stake in the project. We engaged our technology providers as partners by de-emphasizing organizational differences between them and my IT team. People didn't necessarily know whether their co-workers on the project were employed by Frito-Lay, IBM or Fujitsu.
Decisiveness Demands Confidence
When I was at Delta Air Lines in the late 1990s, my team and I were able to have an impact on the company's business processes by acting decisively to address Delta's Y2K problem.
Before my arrival in 1998, Delta had done a lot of design work around what was called the "Airport of the Future". The intent was to make travel more enjoyable by providing better information to passengers and cutting down the time they spent waiting in lines. For instance, customers were frustrated because they believed that the Delta agents were lying to them about flight information because different agents, using different systems, had conflicting data. The Delta employees were frustrated because they couldn't serve people effectively.
Over several years, the company had attempted to improve the customer experience, but these attempts were never sustained. I was brought in mainly because Delta had a huge Y2K problem: 60 million lines of code on 30 technology platforms. Within a couple of months, our choice became clear. We could spend the next two years remediating all of the airport systems, or we could "bulldoze" them, and replace them with new technology and processes. Based on our knowledge of the systems, we were confident that replacing them was the best choice. We presented our conclusion to the Delta executive committee and board of directors. With very little time to act, then-president Leo Mullin agreed with our recommendation that we should devote our energy to replacement instead of remediation. Once this decision was made, it generated positive energy, and dedication from the IT organization and the airport personnel to getting the job done. There was no going back, and everyone knew it.
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