Learning About Management from Abe Lincoln

Steven Spielberg‘s movie Lincoln and Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s book from 2005 entitled  Team of Rivals are both respectful appreciations of a quiet man who did extraordinary things.  What are some of the lessons we can extract from a closer look at our 16th president?

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, there are five behaviors of President Lincoln that we would be smart to practice when managing ourselves and others.

Short-term pain for long-term gain

What many don’t know — I certainly didn’t — is that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued under Lincoln’s war powers and thus did not establish a ‘legal basis for abolishing slavery across the nation.’   He knew that once the Confederates were readmitted into the Union after the war, ratifying it as an amendment (the 13th) to the constitution would have had no chance of succeeding.  Wisely, Lincoln ‘pushed to get it through Congress before the fighting ended.’  While this meant the Civil War dragged on longer than it would have otherwise by delaying a peace delegation with the Confederates, it ensured the Proclamation would pass.  What a masterful job of understanding your objectives and being able to clearly see how doing one thing allows you to accomplish another.

Trust your lieutenants

Even if they don’t trust you or agree with you, as Ms. Goodwin points out, by letting your staff do its work, you can achieve great things you could not do on your own.  I’ve written before about Royal Little, founder of Textron, one of the world’s first conglomerates, who  famously once said that he achieved his successes by hiring people to do what he couldn’t, which was considerable, as it is for most of us.  Ms. Goodwin’s best-selling book tells a fast moving story of how political rivals, working at the behest of President Lincoln, who set the agenda and ‘clarified the moral underpinnings of the Proclamation,’ was able to extract the best from each Cabinet member to allow him to achieve his goals.  Simply, he put the best people in the right jobs and let them figure it out, providing guidance only when necessary.

Don’t get isolated as a leader

One of President Lincoln’s personal strategies was to ensure he did not get too far from the fray personally.  Along with other great managers, he knew how important it was to see for yourself, to touch the people who do the work, and to test what you’ve heard.  In Lincoln, Mr. Spielberg shows the ‘president not afraid to court votes himself from time to time — even meeting with Democrats he knew he had little chance of convincing.’  How difficult but how necessary it is to talk to everyone, even those who disagree with you.  No other way can you exert influence on those who think differently than you.

It’s okay to use anger, but sparingly

Our image of President Lincoln is of a folksy, soft-spoken, backwoods, ax-wielding man of extreme intelligence gleaned from reading the world’s great books by candlelight.  Watching Lincoln you’ll see glimpses of his inner fire, ‘most notably when he loses his temper and delivers a passionate rant about the nobility of the Union cause.’  Why did he express his anger at that moment?  To keep his divided Cabinet from giving up on the amendment.  I can only imagine the emotional intelligence of this man.

Take your job home with you

President Lincoln was very close to his youngest son, Tad, who had a genuine interest in the Civil War and its legacy and purpose.  Innocently, Tad influences his father through their father/son discussions because his conscience ‘reinforced [his] father’s morality.’   Isn’t it a wonderful thing to learn from others when their intent is really just to question?  Often the most innocent question or comment can lead to extraordinary insight and reflection.

We can all learn about being good managers — and good people — by understanding how our late President worked with others, trusted, persevered, loved his family and country, and never lost sight of what he wanted to do.



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How CFOs and CIOs Can Be an Effective Team

Used to be that everyone thought the CIO was prey for the CFO.  But times have fortunately changed, with more collegial and valuable relationships being established between the two roles.

In “So, You’re the Boss of the CIO.  Now What?” of March 1st in CFO.com, the author cites results of  a LinkedIn survey that asked finance executives whether it was a good idea that IT reports to the CFO.  The results were 2/3 ‘yes’ and 1/3 ‘no’.  Responses ranged widely — no surprise — from “The CFO does not have an understanding of the risks” to a more measured “It depends on the person in charge.”

What drew my attention was the undeniable fact that IT is increasingly under the finance organization.  Gartner’s research and that done by the Financial Executives Research Foundation found that nearly half of IT departments (in firms of all sizes) report to the CFO.

Given this fact, what can the CIO do to ensure he or she has an effective relationship with the CFO and the rest of the finance department in order to provide the expected leadership?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. The world of IT is becoming more turbulent with ’emerging technologies transforming both the IT function and the relationship between IT and the business.  Software as a  service has enabled business leaders to implement applications outside tradition IT (and finance) controls…and workforce mobility has increased the support needs for a broadening set of devices.’  This is a very difficult environment to keep up, assess costs and risks, and design a one-size workable solution.  Simply said, there is no way any CFO could maintain (attain?) sufficient knowledge to manage any of this directly.  The CIO must step in, realize it is his/her job to build confidence with the CFO by bringing this Tower of Babel under control and creating trust with the CFO.  Even the least technology-aware CFO realizes that technology is complex, with unanticipated risks arising as soon as new technology is implemented.  That’s why the CFO needs someone he or she can trust and turn to, and someone who can explain the environment in simple, straightforward terms, in a language that anyone could understand.
  2. Technology has two parts:  that which is behind the scenes (the infrastructure) and what the client sees (the applications).  Each should be portrayed distinctly to the CFO and managed against different criteria.  “CFOs need to understand that you have to keep the core running.”  Unfortunately, investments in core don’t always yield an obvious ROI — this means the CIO  should spend time explaining the different layers of IT.  While a new phone system will merely get you better listening clarity and some additional features, a new accounts receivable application that yields  cash faster will have a hard dollar benefit.  A CIO’s ability to explain the differences is quite nuanced, and he/she must be sensitive to how the CFO will want the story delivered.
  3. A big part of the delivering the story — beyond knowing how the CFO wants information and decisions explained — is ’emphasizing the difference between finance and IT.’  In IT there are jobs that drive revenue (e.g., ‘web enhancements that attract new customers’) and others that don’t (e.g., ‘systems maintenance’).  This is likely to be a novel fact to the finance staff and will make forecasting ROI very tricky.  ‘Instead, CFOs should look at potential gains’ as opportunities to improve the business overall and the experiences of staff and customers and evaluate projects on these criteria when hard ROI is not determinable.  Working with the CFO, the CIO can suggest how to prioritize projects, using categories of benefits and including ROI whenever available.  A successful CIO recognizes that a CFO thinks differently.

For effective IT management, a ‘CFO needs to know enough about IT to balance the risk of investing against the risk of not investing, and enough to balance the forms of IT that make money with those that don’t but are essential.’

“CFOs and CIOs are in it together, no matter who reports to whom.”  And as in all relationships of this type, understanding and talking are the elements for success.


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Avoid Committee Hell and Still Be Successful

Jonathan Alter, a well-known author, recently wrote an article in August for Business Week entitled “A Checklist for Change.”  While Mr. Alter most often writes about politics, what could be more appropriate than his writing about management?  Politics and management are inextricably linked.  Committees are inescapable in both arenas.

The premise of the article — and tips to be recalled by even the most experienced and successful managers — is that committees are hell.  People in meetings talk in circles for hours and feel ‘they’ve managed to accomplish something when they manage to schedule the next meeting.’  At that point, we all sigh collectively and bolt for the door, praying there’s no followup.

Every so often, a special leader can break the mold and make things happen, and will reach out to other ‘committed change-makers willing to help.’  From here, the manager creates ad hoc teams aimed at ‘narrow, specific change, beginning with like-minded’ individuals at a small meeting.

How do we use the meeting and gathering process to actually get stuff done?  “Here are a few do’s and don’ts that might help separate change-makers from time-servers.”

Call Yourself a Team, Not a Committee  Words really matter.  The key difference is that while you’re a member of a team, you and your team members ‘have to take initiative, stay relentlessly focused, and, in certain situations, lead.’  If you’re a committee the end game is usually difficult to define, and if it’s not reached, the consequences are rarely dire.  But if a team fails, everyone has lost.  Teams have group commitment; committees do not.

Build the Team with Volunteers  If you want committed team participants, you can’t appoint them — then it’s just another assignment.  Rather, ask people who you think have a vested interest in the outcome and will be ‘present for the right reasons.’  And don’t worry about titles — ‘passion must trump position to get things cracking.’

Create Competition People like to compete — we like to know we’re really good at something and have done our best, especially against a peer.  Such behavior might seem infantile, but we can’t avoid it — it’s who we are.  You might create sub-teams to build a friendly rivalry to extract the most from everyone in the shortest possible time.  Friendly competition can ‘leverage change quickly.’

Don’t Tolerate Debbie Downers Should you come upon any team member who ‘introduces obstacles to moving forward,’ meet them head on by asking that they ‘couple the description of the obstacles with a plan for overcoming them.’  Either their motivation will kick-up a notch or they’ll think better the next time when identifying obstacles instead of solutions.  Or maybe they’ll just leave the team.

Don’t Reorganize How much effort have we all put into either a reorganization or talking about a potential reorganization? Or the non-effects of the most recently and highly touted one?  What Mr. Alter says on this topic is so clear and obvious that I wonder why management doesn’t follow this advice: “The stovepiping that hampers so many bureaucracies can’t be busted on paper, only in practice.  Organization charts only matter in organizations that aren’t nimble and effective in the first place.”  No reorganization I’ve ever been part of has led to greater efficiency or employee satisfaction.

Don’t Make the Xerox Mistake   We all know the failure made by Xerox’s PARC research lab to transform brilliant ideas into world class marketable technology.  However, Xerox’s problem was not merely not seeing the opportunity; rather, it was management’s error in not knowing what they had because their focus was too simple.  “They weren’t receptive enough to the change underway all around them.”  By focusing solely on the technical product, they weren’t able to see the world was moving and changing.  Thus, an organization needs to ‘design for change’ in order to adapt and thrive.

I suggest we all consider new ways of working together, not seeking structure or the organization to solve problems for us.  Each of us needs to be an adaptable member of a team, helping each other and being as resourceful as we can possibly be.

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Soft Skills Needed for Successful Change Management

Change management matters.  We know from many studies that unless a change management program accompanies a major technology implementation, the success rate of the project drops precipitously.  The ROI implications of the failure are significant, damaging further the relationship between IT and business managers.

According to “Developing Better Change Leaders” by McKinsey, ‘few companies can avoid big, periodic changes in the guts of their business.’  From my experience, the likelihood of technology being involved in these changes is high.  We also know from research and my previous blogs that unless there is a senior sponsor focusing relentlessly on the project, it will fail.  To quote McKinsey’s concurring comment: “Such changes start at the top and demand a relentless focus on nitty-gritty details from leaders up and down the line.”  Successful big changes require commitment, focus, time and getting into the details.  Few senior managers can pay attention at this level.  So how do we make it happen?

A large component of coaching is addressing the softer skills.  Whether transitioning from an analytical role to a managerial one or maneuvering around uncertain inter-personal relationships, soft skills are the ones which lead to long-term success.

McKinsey writes: “Too often, however, senior executives overlook the ‘softer’ skills their leaders will need to disseminate changes throughout the organization and make them stick.  These skills include the ability to keep managers and workers inspired when they feel overwhelmed, to promote collaboration across organizational boundaries, or to help embrace change programs through dialogue, not dictation.”

How does an organization address the need for ‘soft skills’?  The article suggests an ‘intense, immersive, and individualized leadership program.’

  • Engage stakeholders as opposed to acting independently.
  • Build trust by asking your partners to join you in the journey of the change.
  • Commit to interacting not just intellectually but also emotionally.
  • Delegate to share the vision and ‘bring more people on board.’
  • Focus on solutions to ‘build on existing strengths to overcome resistance.’
  • Be collaborative by including employees who actually do the work.
  • Allow others to speak and encourage the group to find solutions to problems.
  • Don’t shy away from the difficult conversations.  Your values and beliefs might be more widely held than you believe.

McKinsey’s practitioners observed four lessons of big change projects that formed an effective, results-oriented leadership management program:

First, tie training goals to business goals.  “Leadership training can seem vaporous when not applied to actual problems in the workplace.”

Second, build on strengths.  “Train managers who are influential in areas crucial to the overall transformation and already have some of the desired behavior.”

Third, ensure sponsorship.  “Give training participants access to formal senior-executive sponsors who can tell them hard truths are vital in helping participants change how they lead.”

Fourth, create networks of change leaders.  “Change programs falter when early successes remain isolated in organizational silos.”

You might enjoy reading the related article below as it aligns well with the need for soft skills among IT workers in their daily engagements with business managers.

Given that we know enough to be smart about change management, there’s no reason we can’t increase the rate of successful IT projects.

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How should Business and IT Leaders Interact?

An issue of CIO Dashboard begins with five IT assessment questions which a new CIO should investigate.  Of the five, two related to the relationship between business and IT.  These were:

First, do business and IT leaders regularly interact?

Second, can business sponsors for the top 5 projects describe a project’s business case in one sentence?  (This is quite a feat!)

Taking them in turn, the interaction CIO Dashboard describes has nothing to do with a quick hallway discussion or even the regular status meetings, which I think most would agree are not a good use of time.  Rather, they suggest a ‘regularly scheduled time during which real issues are discussed and concrete planning is discussed on a one-on-one basis.’  An example they give is a weekly meeting between a CTO and a head of business strategy.  Real work can be accomplished in a meeting where leaders seriously question each other and change direction if necessary.  I know a company which has weekly reviews of its technology accomplishments with the business counterpart.  The continuation of the technology project is subject to the weekly assessment of the business manager — this is a lot of work but it engages both parties in mutual goals and doesn’t let troubled projects go astray.

CIO Dashboard identifies regular meetings you should look for as indicative of a interaction that can distinguish a company:

  • CTO/Chief Architect with the head of strategy
  • CTO/Chief Architect with the head of new product/service development
  • Head of Applications with the business unit/functional leaders
  • Head of Ops/Infrastructure with the head of customer service
  • IT person responsible for people with the head of HR/recruiting
  • IT Controller with the corporate controller

These partnerships are in line with my point of view about fully engaging the other party.  Unless both business and IT have ongoing and trusted discussions, where meaningful decisions can be made, there will be continual disappointment with the output of the technology organization, and they will remain as mere providers of infrastructure.

How many business sponsors really understand the technology business case?  Normally these are completed by the IT organization with revenue and non-technical costs provided by the business.  But generally the responsibility falls to the technology staff to write and build the business case.  This is backwards!  The business should be in the lead and provide:

  • Succinctly stated business objective to be met by the IT project — there can be no hesitation here
  • Metrics of project success, including timing
  • Revenue (of the non-hockey stick variety)
  • Improvements, if any, to business process enabled by the technology implementation and cost reductions or competitive enhancement
  • Changes in brand value or market position due to the technology

To improve the dialogue between business and technology, you really need to get into the nitty-gritty and share responsibility for the process and end product.  Why does it seem that other service providers — marketing, finance — don’t appear to have the same difficulty having a truly harmonious approach?


Technology Leadership

Yesterday I attended a CIO Summit, put on by the Society for Information Management (SIM) in New York City.  My attendance was prompted by the topic of IT leadership, which was covered in several breakout sessions and by the keynote speakers.

It was gratifying to hear senior technology executives say they recognize what they need to do to enable business growth and how to encourage technologists to take a more proactive role in business innovation.

The key themes I gathered are:

  1. “Successful IT executives focus on leadership, innovation and transformation strategies to keep their organizations relevant to the business.”  (Hunter Muller of HMG Strategy)
  2. Most conversations today between business managers and technology managers involve business strategy, not technology.
  3. Making meaningful contribution to the business requires problem solving and communication skills, high emotional IQ and seeing outside yourself, which means looking beyond the technology and your previous definition of what technologists provided.  (All these capabilities can be addressed via coaching.)
  4. Getting infrastructure right is no longer table stakes – your technology organization must successfully adopt new technologies and implement them quickly if you want to stay in the game and participate with the business.
  5. A deeper knowledge of direct and adjacent markets and customer needs is essential to help the business adapt to change.

Technology leadership has never been more difficult nor more interesting.  For years technologists have wanted a seat at the business table — the opportunity is now there for the taking, as long as you know it’s not about technology, but rather about anticipating and satisfying business needs and meeting those with robust technology solutions.

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Vexing Technology Management: Not Working Together

Technology management is not getting any easier, despite technology’s ubiquity, the ease with which we integrate it with our daily lives and cloud-based services, which should simplify nearly everything if you believe the press.

The primary reason why there’s a disconnect — a lack of meshing — between users who believe technology should be straightforward and the reality for corporate technology providers is that corporate technology is customized and that requires users and developers to really understand each other.  In fact, I would argue that technology is becoming more difficult to implement successfully.

I continue to see a true lack of communication between the business and technology organizations and implementation failures resulting from lack of understanding rather than anything technical.  In fact, which I’ve mentioned before, a recent McKinsey survey found a low score of 26% for technology leaders proactively engaging with business leaders on new ideas or system enhancements.  This has been a problem for as long as I recall.  I know the 26% figure can be raised.

Trouble is, the business people see the problem but don’t know what to do, while the technologists are so focused on coding and infrastructure and having a project number, they don’t realize the problem’s root cause.   Neither side wants to step into the shoes of the other.

Many ‘blocks’ exist to fixing this problem.  The ‘blocks’ I would concentrate on to solve the problem are:

  • Specifically focusing CIO/CEO discussions on the conversations that should be held between business managers for whom the technology is being developed and the technologists.
  • Understanding the daily relationship between the business managers and technologists.  Normally this is highly discontinuous – which leads to disappointment during user acceptance testing and implementation of the final release.
  • Addressing the unknown effect of outsourcing development, which further distances the business from his/her technology provider.  I think this leads to more ‘throwing it over the fence’ by the business, upsetting the technologists who see themselves more than ever as order takers.  Further, outsourcing highlights communication problems due to cultural, distance and language differences.  And it adds another opportunity for management miscommunication.
  • The dilemma of a CIO who gets kudos for executing ‘overhead’ and believes that is sufficient for creating a strong line of communication and openness with the business organization.   With all the articles and analyses on the importance and role of technology enabling strategy, it’s a shame that the relationship to create a working union still has so far to go.

The ‘blocks’ can be addressed through improved governance, enhanced communication, more mutual planning, and having all parties participate equally.  The gears of both parties need to engage and remain meshed.


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It's Not All About You

Before I’ve mentioned how much I enjoy the ‘Corner Office’ section of the Sunday New York Times.  The leaders profiled are well-selected and there’s something new to be learned each week.  Most of all, I find what is said is natural, sensible, clear, and so obvious you wonder how many leaders miss these basics.  The one I cover today is from the paper of December 4, 2011.

Ruth J. Simmons has been president of Brown University for 11 years, though is stepping down at the end of the year to become a professor.  In her interview, entitled “I Was Impossible, But Then I Saw How to Lead,” she made a few remarkable statements that tie back to other brief articles I’ve written about being true to yourself, about considering the organization, being open and being able to change your style when you recognize you need to.

Ms. Simmons makes these few outstanding yet basic points, all of which she has learned — as we all can by having good mentors, superb colleagues, paying close attention, changing behavior, having great coaches and open communication:

  • From her mother, she learned: “Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else.  Always think for yourself.  Don’t follow the crowd.”  Have you noticed how real leaders often assemble disparate and apparently unrelated ideas and put together a cogent argument for taking a different approach?
  • Working kindly with others pays dividends:  “Ultimately, I came to understand that I could achieve far more if I worked amiably with people, if I supported others’ goals, if I didn’t try to embarrass people by pointing out their deficiencies in a very public way.”  We might all view this being a team player, but it’s more than that.  Its entails being fully in the moment, learning from others, and not envisioning yourself as better than someone else.  Everyone has something to add.
  • Bad experiences as well as good ones lead to better understanding:  “I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.”  Don’t let bad experiences demotivate you.
  • Having worked with someone who did not support her, she learned the primary lesson of this article:  “It’s not all about you.  It’s very important in a leadership role not to place your ego at the foreground and not to judge everything in relationship to how your ego is fed. And that seems to be all-important if you’re going to lead well.  The other thing is just how unpleasant it is to work in an environment where you’re demeaned or disrespected.”  As an employee you should never be mistreated; at the same time, it’s essential that you treat others well by leaving your ego behind, lead with kindness and let yourself learn from others, without any expectations other than to participate in the conversation.
  • Ms. Simmons learned a lot about management, about problems, and herself by listening and not judging too quickly what is valuable and what is not, a topic also covered here before.  What you learn could surprise you:  “I talk about this all the time with students.  What I impart to them is that they should never assume that they can predict what experiences will teach them the most about what they value, or about what their life should be.  And I would never have guessed that that experience would be so defining for me.  After all, if I look at it in the arc of my career, it was a tiny job, and in a place that hasn’t really been that significant frankly to me.  And yet that experience taught me so much that I carried it with me for all those years.   So my lesson to my students is you have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.”
  • We have also covered here previously the absolute need to be honest and direct, that criticism does not need to create conflict.  Ms. Simmons has one of the finest examples of this and how not to prejudge others:  “Probably the most important experience I had in that regard was working at Princeton in the dean of the faculty office for a man named Aaron Lemonick.  He was an unlikely sort of mentor for me. He was Jewish and from Philadelphia.  I was a Baptist from the South.  But we had an immediate connection for a very important reason, and that is that he said what he thought, and I said what I thought.  And the first time that we met and we spoke, we both understood that we’d found something valuable.  He was very focused on details, and it was the first time in my career that I had worked with someone who was so focused on every minor thing, or everything that I thought at the time was minor.  We couldn’t have been more different, but he was very demanding of me, and he didn’t patronize me.  It was the first time probably in my entire career that I actually met somebody who did not patronize me as an African-American and a woman.  The lesson of that, of course, is that as you’re trying to help people, you can give very honest criticism, but if you do it in the context of genuinely wanting to help them, it makes all the difference in the world.
  • We all know that teams and groups of colleagues should have a shared objective.  “I thought it was absolutely essential for all of us as a team to understand that we were there not for our own individual glorification, but to help everybody else thrive. And that meant working together well. I emphasized that more than anything, and I stressed that I would not have any tolerance at all for people who did not, in fact, strive hard to be a part of that team. It meant being interested in others’ work. Being willing to facilitate their success. Being willing to generate ideas as well as generate criticism of what they were doing.  I wanted to establish an environment in which people were comfortable offering criticism, because others understood that underlying that criticism was a fundamental support for who they were, and what they were trying to do.”

Ms. Simmons represents not only an accomplished leader in the difficult arena of higher education.  To me she embodies an enlightened manager who adroitly and unconsciously applies the human qualities inherent in all of us to the fundamental challenges of management and learning and working with others.  I think she did this because she saw value in others, kept her ego in check, and knew when to push and when to hold back.  Clearly, she’s received the best from her staff and that’s quite an accomplishment.

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Collaborating for Success on Technology Projects

Very rarely — except possibly on the most technical projects — is collaborating with the business not a necessity on technology projects.  Indeed, it is the goal of technology to enable the business; thus, technology and business management cannot avoid each other!  Working together towards a goal is a must.

What I learned from more than three decades of working in financial services at the intersection of technology and business is that one management capability normally stands in the way of successful technology projects:  the inability to collaborate.

Collaboration is a necessity of growing importance.  Why?  There are four reasons:

First, business functions are now distributed globally.  Going it alone is simply no longer likely.

Second, decision-making is more dispersed.  More people are involved in decision-making than before because technology’s reach and impact have increased and security is paramount.

Third,  IT consumerization encourages more inputs from a broader audience.   I believe consumerization and social networking are part of the same trend to more involvement from all corners, which is positive for learning and knowledge.

Fourth, Millennials are entering the work force and they’re ultra comfortable collaborating in-person or remotely.  They willingly learn from others.

Because collaboration is a process, what is often missing is the reason for coming together.  Just because there’s a joint project, it doesn’t mean everyone is on board and committed.

During an American Management Association webinar (“The Art of Collaborative Teaming,” by Pauline Larkin), the speaker used a term I’d never considered before:  “The Superordinate Goal.”  What Ms. Larkin said was that for collaboration to be successful, the team must “share an important, valuable goal that transcends personal goals.”

The team’s goal should be so deeply held that it creates strong morale and spirit, allows the different organizations to share wins and successes, opens dialogue, creates a feeling of belonging, and defines success for the whole team.  If you can do this, you’ve built a splendid and effective team that should allow technology projects to prosper.



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