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Learning to Lead

Learning to Lead

Technology is how I got to be an executive, but now I want to know how I can make a greater contribution to the company outside the realm of technology

It's The China Syndrome come to life in Greensboro, North Carolina. There's been an accident at the nuclear power plant. A fuel rod is leaking in the reactor core. Danger is imminent unless the radioactive rod is immediately transferred to a lead-lined protective chamber. Six plant workers surround the reactor, carefully tethering and extracting the rod. They can't afford a single mistake. Six managers nervously guide the workers, taking their cues from one unlikely leader: a CIO named Gary Baxter, who eyes the clock and hopes to hell he's got what it takes to keep this crisis from exploding.

But, then, that's why he's attending the Leadership Development Program-to ensure he's got what it takes.

Baxter, CIO of Maine Employers' Mutual Insurance of Portland, Maine, is one of 27 senior executives attending this summer Leadership Development Program (LDP) session of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a Greensboro-based nonprofit organisation. The nuclear crisis-a mock disaster staged on the sloping grounds of the rural CCL campus-is the biggest test yet for Baxter and his classmates. True, the disaster is fake, but the leadership crisis is real. After three days of being assessed, challenged and tested, Baxter is a little shell-shocked, and he sees his team on the verge of a meltdown. A jumble of voices vie to be heard, flustering the confused workers, who in turn cause the fuel rod (actually a rubber Koosh ball) to shake. Baxter, who's always seen himself as an intrinsically strong leader, wonders if he's about to be proven wrong.

"What rumors have you heard?"

That's LDP trainer Henry Browning's first question as he kicks off the week-long program. The new crop of students has heard plenty about this training program. "It's a life-changing experience," one says. "Intense," says another. "Too long," chimes a third.

CCL was founded in Greensboro in 1970 by the Smith Richardson Foundation and has since expanded to other US locations and Europe. At its Greensboro campus, the staff of 400 conducts leadership research, produces publications and provides training for more than 25,000 executives annually. LDP is one of the center's programs, producing more than 30,000 alumni since its inception in 1974.

Browning describes three categories of participants: learners, vacationers and hostages. Gary Baxter's class includes senior business executives (including one other CIO) from business, government and academe. As they introduce themselves, their categories are sometimes obvious: Madeline (to preserve confidentiality, participants' real names are not used here), a soft-spoken East Coast educator, is hungry for leadership skills. George, a gruff Midwestern transportation executive, knows he needs some refinement, but he also needs a break from work, which keeps interrupting via cell phone. Harry is a veteran manager of a Southern agricultural business, and he clearly had LDP thrust upon him. "I'm 55 years old and eight years from retirement," he says to anyone who'll listen, "and ain't no way I'm going to start changing myself now."

Then there's Baxter, recruited by CIO to attend and share his experiences for this article. Baxter, 43, is something of a self-made leader, having worked his way up from computer programmer to CIO in about 10 years. A Manchester, N.H., native, Baxter did a stint in the US Air Force from 1976 to 1980 before earning a bachelor of science in MIS and embarking on a career in mainframe application development. He moved his young family to Maine in 1992, the year he earned his MBA degree, and in 1996 won the CIO job at fledgling Maine Employers' Mutual. Baxter has since built the company's IT staff and systems virtually from scratch, introducing new technologies and streamlining information flow for the company, its customers and business partners. In the process, he's earned the respect of his boss and peers, but now he's hungry for new challenges. "CIO is an important role, but I don't want it to be the end of the line in my career," Baxter says. "Technology is how I got to be an executive, but now I want to know how I can make a greater contribution to the company outside the realm of technology."

Baxter approaches LDP as a learner, but retains some skepticism. "I've been through leadership programs before, and they're all great while you're there," he says, "but as soon as you get back to the office, you forget everything and go back to being whatever you were before the program."

The work actually commences before the LDP week-long session begins. Eight weeks prior to attending, each participant spends eight to 10 hours filling out a box full of standardized assessment instruments including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the FIRO-B interpersonal skills indicator, the Change Style Indicator, the Denison Organisational Culture Survey and CCL's own Benchmarks feedback report, which includes information about job challenges and leadership and interpersonal skills. The Benchmarks data comes not just from the students but from nearly a dozen of their bosses, peers and direct reports. LDP instructors collect, process and interpret this information, giving students a holistic picture of their leadership strengths and weaknesses.

Beginning on day one, instructors mete out this feedback in doses, which is good because the participants are quickly overwhelmed-often shocked by the frank assessments. In most cases, the feedback reveals a disconnect between intended and perceived behavior. Madeline, for instance, sees herself as a compassionate thinker who measures her words and actions carefully to avoid missteps. Her coworkers describe her as passive, reticent and indecisive.

Baxter's self-image is of a bold, benevolent, out-of-the-box thinker. The feedback tells him he's maybe a little too bold, and that peers and staff sometimes find him intimidating. His out-of-the-box ideas come a little too fast and furiously, Baxter's colleagues report, and when they're slow to receive them, he can appear aloof. "This is a little alarming," Baxter says. And he's not alone in that feeling. Some LDP participants are near tears after reading their Benchmarks results; others struggle to resist the temptation to call home and demand explanations. A few people bus back to the hotel and exorcise their frustrations over drinks in the hospitality suite. Not Baxter. He retires to his room and spends three hours poring over the feedback and cross-referencing it with CCL's For Your Improvement handbook, which offers remedies to problem areas. "I was drained," Baxter says later. "I was just mentally exhausted."

Day one was exhausting; day two is exasperating.

It starts with a coaching exercise. In groups of four, people take turns playing coach and coachee in one of four scenarios that are videotaped for critique. The vignettes are all loosely plotted as problematic one-on-one discussions between bosses, peers or employees, but the participants make up their own scripts on the spot.

Baxter chooses the peer-coaching scenario-he has to determine why a colleague has suddenly turned against a plan they both formerly championed-and he thinks he does a credible job trying to understand the peer's issues and re-enlist his support. Until he sees the videotape that exposes the flaws in his delivery. "Remember that episode of Seinfeld about the 'low-talker'?" Baxter asks. "Well, I'm the low-talker!" A fast-talker, too; he speaks so quickly and softly that, while the person he's talking to hears him, it's a strain for some of the observers. Baxter always saw himself as a loud, clear speaker. The truth on videotape is jarring, making him wonder how clearly he communicates within his teams back home.

After lunch, participants receive their Change Style Indicator self-assessment results. People whose scores place them on the left side of the CSI continuum are "conservers"-they like process and order. On the right side are "originators," those who think out of the box. People in the middle are "pragmatists," those who are able to negotiate and bridge the two extremes. Baxter is the third-highest-scoring originator in the group. This revelation starts to shed light on his Benchmarks feedback. "I'm an original thinker, and I don't want to change," he says. "But maybe I do need to work on my style. Maybe, within my groups at work, I drop new ideas like bombs. I can see where that could be threatening to some people."

Time for a survival exercise. Baxter and his fellow students are in a hiking party caught in a sudden blizzard in the remote Appalachians. Their Ford Windstar has crashed and is undriveable. Among the gear are 15 items of varying usefulness: a map, a compass, matches, a knife, a pound of beef jerky and so on. The challenge: Each person must rank the items one to 15 in order of importance to survival. Oh, and then sit down within a small group and reach consensus on these rankings.

Groups get a half-hour to reach agreement, after which the LDP instructor reads the correct rankings as determined by a certified survivalist. The teams and individuals are scored based on the differential between the survivalist's ranking and their own. A low score is good, a high score bad. The average score is in the 50s. Baxter scores a 96-worst in the class by far. "And I was an Eagle Scout!" he laments. Problem is, the former Eagle Scout has such unshakable faith in his conviction that a map and compass are the most critical items ("What if there's a ranger station 150 yards away?" he argues), that he won't cave in to his teammates' lobbying on behalf of the knife, which would have any number of practical uses. It turns out they're right-the survivalist ranked the knife number one, while the map and compass were 14 and 15, respectively. The lesson of the day is, oftentimes a group really does make better decisions than an individual.

As participants leave the classroom for the night and plan a lively group dinner, Baxter chats with fellow student Marcelo, who's feeling a little overwhelmed by the LDP experience. "I just don't have the energy to go to dinner," Marcelo confesses. "Me either," sighs Baxter. He's got plenty to think about by himself.

On Wednesday, as the group splits in two and moves outside for leadership exercises, Baxter's focus turns inward. Based on what he's learned, he already wants to make some changes. Talk louder, slower-and a little less frequently.

But he can't contain himself. In each of the first two exercises-beating the clock while passing around a rubber ball, and mastering an electronic maze-Baxter is first to offer his own quickly devised strategies. But each time, someone else follows up with a more considered plan-a better plan. Baxter privately vows to let someone else take the lead in subsequent exercises. By being less of an originator, he feels, maybe he'll be more receptive to the conservers and pragmatists. "My natural inclination is to step in and take control of situations," he says, "but I really just want to kick back."

Then comes the nuclear accident, which tests Baxter's new resolve.

In this scenario, 14 students are now employees of a nuclear power plant. Six are workers and will be blindfolded; seven are managers who must guide the workers; and one is the CEO, who offers direction.

George, the transportation exec with the take-charge style, is the group's unanimous choice for CEO. He stays behind for last-minute instructions as the rest of the group hikes down a hill and waits in a gazebo for the exercise to begin. Quickly, the risk-takers-Madeline surprisingly among them-step forward and offer to don blindfolds. Then six others, Harry among them, volunteer to be managers. Baxter is among neither group.

George rejoins the team and lays out the problem: the managers must guide the workers to retrieve a leaking fuel rod and physically move it to a safer place. As CEO, George is needed elsewhere, so he has to appoint a supervisor. And, of course, only one person hasn't stepped forward yet.

"I really saw a role there," Baxter explains later. "I knew going into the exercise that I didn't want to be a worker-I didn't want to be led around. And I didn't really want to lead anyone around. I saw that there might be a need for a supervisor, and that looked really attractive to me."

Baxter huddles with CEO George, surveys the scene atop the hill, then returns to the group-not with a solution, but with his assessment of the problem. He speaks slowly, loudly, and he gets people's attention. From his clear description of the problem, the solution is obvious to everyone: The managers must guide the workers back to the top of the hill, where they must encircle the rod, which can be handled only remotely, then move it to a safety zone. In reality, the Koosh ball "rod" sits atop a plastic bucket; nearby is a big elastic band with a half-dozen ropes attached to it. The managers must guide the workers to each grab a piece of rope, stretch the band and in unison place it around the bucket without upsetting the ball. Then they have to walk together, balancing the bucket and ball, to the safety zone a few dozen yards away. The crew has 10 minutes to fulfill this mission.

The blindfolded workers, understandably anxious, beg direction as they attempt to find and lift the rod. The managers, trying to reassure the workers, offer suggestions on how best to complete the task. People talk over one another, the workers panic a bit, and Baxter wavers for an instant...then takes charge. "Hold on," he says. "We have a task to do here and a time limit. It's a very simple task if we all work together, so let's listen up." Baxter repeats the plan, speaking in a measured, even tone that the managers find instructive, the workers reassuring. At one point, Harry counters with what he thinks is a better approach. "No!" Baxter says, cutting him off firmly. "We've got a plan and a time limit; we've got to stick together."

As the group approaches the safety zone, Baxter gives calm updates of how much distance is left, gently prodding a manager if a worker pulls the rope too much or too little. With barely a minute to spare, the group reaches its destination, gently lowers the rod and removes the elastic band. "That's it!" Baxter declares, and the blindfolds come off. Cheers erupt. People realize the exercise would have failed without teamwork, and especially without Baxter's leadership.

"Your voice was so calm and reassuring," one worker says. "I had full confidence in you." The managers compliment Baxter for taking charge. Even Harry, who realises he almost derailed the group, has kind words. "You were the man," he says.

Clearly, this is the high point of Baxter's LDP experience. After two days of feedback and frustration, this is the success he needed. "It's a good feeling," Baxter says. "The objective was met, and people all felt they played their role and maintained their relationships."

For the first time all week, Baxter feels like the leader he wants to be.

As the program winds down, Baxter is confident that he has himself figured out. He understands his strengths and weaknesses, and he can boil down his LDP experience into a punch list of goals to pursue back home: be more approachable to his direct reports.be a more restrained originator around his conserver and pragmatist peers.be mindful of the disconnect between intended and perceived behavior.

Around the LDP classroom, Baxter's classmates craft their own goals to address their needs.

Then Michelle Malloy, a young trainer with a gentle style, steps forward to lead a final discussion. She asks people to take out some paper and, based on their LDP experiences, write a short "career vision" of their immediate objectives. Easy. This is exactly what each had been doing before she spoke.

But Malloy doesn't stop there. "Now make a list of 20 activities you enjoy outside of work," she says. Suddenly, 27 busy pens stall. "Now go through this list and mark which of these activities you spend enough time doing and which you wish you had more time for." More time? Most people are still trying to think of 20 things they like doing. Baxter can't name six.

Malloy asks people to make a new list, and a foreboding engulfs the room. "List everybody in your life who is important to you-family, friends, whoever really means a lot to you," she says. She doesn't have to ask people to do the "enough time/more time" exercise. As they write the names, they automatically make these distinctions.

The mood in the room has changed from quiet confidence to just quiet. Malloy breaks the silence by explaining the button-a plastic, lapel-pin button that was given to each LDP participant at dinner the night before. Round and red, with four identical gold dots in the center, it looks like a ladybug. Its significance: Each of the four gold dots represent an aspect of a person's life-career, family, community and self. The red background is the spirituality that ties the aspects together. On the button, the dots are of equal size, depicting the delicate balance an effective leader must achieve. But in real life, Malloy says, illustrating her point by drawing a new button on a white board, people's dots are way out of balance-career often far surpasses self and community. "Draw your own version of the button," Malloy prods. In Baxter's drawing, the career and family dots are equally large; community and self are tiny. "I don't do anything just for myself," he says quietly.

Finally, Malloy asks everyone to write a new set of post-LDP goals, which now are more akin to resolutions than the earlier action items.

Trainer Browning breaks the solemn mood by announcing it's time to hand out diplomas. The students push the desks aside and assemble in a semicircle. As each receives a diploma, the new graduate is asked to make a brief statement about what he or she is taking away from this week. George quickly steps forward. "That button Michelle drew-the one with career outweighing family and self-that's mine," he says. "I never saw it that way before, but now I intend to go home and do something about it."

Madeline speaks up. "I've always had a very good family life, and I've felt I've deserved it," she says. "But I've always had a bad worklife, and felt I deserved that too. Now I know better; I know I deserve a good worklife, and I'm going to make it happen."

Harry stands and says all the right things about how much he really learned at LDP, and he sounds sincere. Time will tell.

Baxter's turn comes. "I do a good job balancing my career and my family, but I don't ever do anything for myself," he says. "That's going to change." He's not abandoning his other goals-he still wants to be less aloof, more open to other perspectives. "But I'm also going to start finding time for me."

Afterword

Two weeks later, the LDP experience is still fresh in Baxter's memory, but he's not sure what will come of it. "This is the second time I've been through a leadership program, and both times I've found them to be more of a personal experience, more self-awareness than concrete skills and techniques," he says. "I don't know that I have enough actionable items [to build on]."

He did, on his return, thank his boss, peers and staff for their feedback, and he explained to them how he intends to be more open to their ideas and accommodating of their styles. "If I can improve myself and how I interact with those people, then that's going to help the company," he says.

More time for himself? "It's not going to happen," Baxter shrugs. "I don't think I value that goal enough to act on it. The time that I'm not working or asleep is going to be devoted to my family. That's just the way I think it should be."

A month later, the news is better: The company just got approval to return $16 million in capital contribution to its earliest policy-holders, and Baxter is charged with making that happen. Also, the insurer is starting to expand beyond Maine's borders, "so there'll be plenty of new, exciting stuff for 'the originator,'" Baxter says. And plenty of opportunities for him to work more with the conservers and pragmatists as well. If successful, Baxter hopes these projects will lead to new leadership opportunities on his company's business side.

His interpersonal relationships all are improving, and Baxter is pleasantly surprised. "The major cause of my [stress at work] was most likely due to my perceived (not intended) challenging-threatening style," Baxter says. "It feels good to own up to it and see results from the behavioral changes."

Although Baxter doesn't see himself increasing the size of that "self" dot on his personal LDP button, maybe the other changes are enough. "The big question for me regarding [LDP] was how to make it stick," Baxter says. "Well, it seems to be sticking."

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