Are You Brave Enough to be an Intimate Leader?

By Charles Araujo  |  Posted 05-07-2014
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Are You Brave Enough to be an Intimate Leader?

By Charles Araujo

If there is one thing that I hear more than anything else when talking to non-IT people it is this: "IT does not understand what I do."

A funny thing happened after the publication of my book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. As I would talk to friends or family—people that had nothing to do with IT—they would always be curious about the book. I would explain the core premise to them and, invariably, I got some version of the same response. While I expected The Quantum Age of IT would be meaningless to anyone outside of the world of IT, I was wrong. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell me about how their IT organization was out of touch. Almost without fail, my non-IT friends and family asked if they could give a copy of my book to their IT department in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it would wake IT up and help them see just how bad thing were from their perspective.

One evening, my wife and I had dinner with some dear friends of ours. Neither of them worked in IT. In fact, Hew was about as far from IT as you could get—or so I thought. He was the executive chef for a chain of convenience stores that carried a wide range of fresh foods. He had been trained in a Michelin-starred restaurant and was launching a cooking web channel. Surely, my book would have no interest to him. So when he asked me about it, I gave him the 30-second summary and prepared to talk about the chicken that he was cooking. Instead, Hew got very animated.

"Oh, my gosh, Charlie," he said as he stopped cooking to turn and look me square in the eye. "That is exactly the problem I’m having at my company. I have all of these things I'm trying to do to open the U.S. market, to introduce new and interesting food products, and I need support from IT to do it. But they are locked in their own world back at the home office and I'm sure they have absolutely no idea what I do. I just wish one of them would spend a day in my shoes. Then maybe they'd understand how important they are to what I'm doing and could actually help me. As it is, they are just working against me."

To be honest, I was taken aback. Even with my belief that technology is now impacting everything, I didn't expect this kind of reaction. It really drove home for me how pervasive technology is in every aspect of business—even in places that we may not realize. It also solidified in my mind why the fourth organizational trait in my book—being Intimate—will be vital to the future success of every IT leader.

The Intimacy Line

When I was writing The Quantum Age of IT, I had the opportunity to interview an amazing executive. At the time, Bill Wray was the CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island (he is now the COO). Wray gave me a line that I have borrowed shamelessly. When we were talking about the necessity of understanding the true needs of your customers, he described what he called "the Intimacy Line." He said that he told his team that they could not meet their customers in the middle. He explained that it was not enough to go 50 percent of the way toward the customer and expect them to come 50 percent back toward them. Instead, he told them that they needed to go 80 percent of the way toward the customer so that they needed to come only 20 percent toward IT. He said that he demanded that his team live their lives within their customer’s lives and that they had to know their customers' business almost as well as they did. It was powerful in its simplicity.

Are You Brave Enough to be an Intimate Leader?

The idea of customer intimacy is a well understood marketing idea that dates back a couple of decades. It represents the idea that you cannot expect the customer to tell you what they want or what they need. In many cases, the customer genuinely does not know. Instead, you must create an intimate relationship with them whereby you understand their wants and needs intrinsically so that you can meet them, whether they can articulate them or not. It also means that because you understand the customer, their business and their challenges on a deep level, you are able to identify emerging opportunities and risks and how you can help respond to them before they may even see them themselves.

When you get this right, it can be a game changer.

Many people do not remember this, but when the iPad was first announced, it was widely dismissed by the pundits. Industry watchers declared there was no significant market for tablets, that tablets had been tried numerous times and had failed on each occasion. The iPad was offered up as proof of Steve Jobs' hubris. Of course, the pundits were wrong. After this fact became clear, a reporter interviewed Jobs and asked what market research he had done that told him that the iPad would be successful. Famously, Jobs replied, "None. It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want."

Steve Jobs and the culture of Apple had developed an intrinsic understanding of their customer's wants and needs. They had developed a deep level of intimacy that allowed them to understand there was a desire for the right kind of tablet that no focus group or customer survey could uncover. It was only through this deep, close relationship that it could be understood. That's the power of intimacy.

Becoming an Intimate Leader

The problem with intimacy is that it requires mutual vulnerability. Just as in an intimate personal relationship, you must be willing to put yourself at risk in order for the relationship to exist. Intimacy cannot exist without trust and transparency, which is why the preceding organizational traits are so important. (Read my previous articles on trust and transparency here and here, respectively). But even with the trust and transparency, intimacy requires that you take it further. You must be willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable to establish the depth of the relationship that is required.

So what does it mean to become an "intimate leader"? I believe that if you are to develop the type of intimate relationships that will be demanded as we enter this new era for IT, you will be required to do three things:

Tear down the wall with humility 
The first step is to approach your customers with a sense of humility. I write extensively about the need for humility and a servant’s attitude because it is so central to building the kind of relationship that is required as the world of IT shifts. I learned the power of this approach during a recent trip to Kenya as part of my church's global outreach program. But instead of being the rich, smart Americans who come to Kenya to "help" and "show them how to do things like us," we went in with an attitude that our first goal was to listen and learn. We spent time with a number of local Kenyan non-profit organizations and sought to understand the challenges that they were attempting to address, their approaches, where they were finding success and where they were struggling. It was only after we genuinely listened and learned that we offered ways that we thought we might be able to help. Inevitably, we learned as much from the Kenyans as they did from us. And we brought many of these lessons back with us and applied them in the U.S. This posture of humility enabled us to tear down the walls that often exist in these kinds of situations and build a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship. It is no different when you are working with your customers. If you begin with a posture of humility, seeking to listen and learn, you will reset the foundation of your relationship with them.

Are You Brave Enough to be an Intimate Leader?

Allow yourself to be vulnerable
With the foundation of your relationship reset, the next step is to put yourself out there. Being willing to be vulnerable is one of the most difficult steps. In Western culture we tend to be unwilling to allow our fate to rest with anyone else. But it is that demonstration of faith that is required to create an intimate relationship. What does it mean to be mutually vulnerable? From an IT perspective, it mostly means giving up a significant amount of control. How can you help your customer make a decision, but let the decision truly be theirs? To put your knowledge and resources at their disposal to help them achieve their goals, truly putting their needs in front of yours, especially when their needs seem counter to the standards or policies that you've put in place? I remember the time a CIO I worked for was put in just this situation. She had spent months selling the senior management team on the need for standardization—and she had won. We were in the middle of a major project to get rid of all the disparate systems to go to a standardized platform. Then a mid-level executive approached her with a business problem. The challenge was that the best solution to this business problem was a system that ran on one of the platforms that we had just eradicated. Most CIOs would have simply said "no." How could you introduce a non-standard platform after having just invested all of your political capital selling the need for standardization? But this CIO was courageous. She knew that the system was the right solution and was willing to be mutually vulnerable to return to the senior management team and explain why she was going to break her own rule. You need to be ready to do the same.

Invest your time
The last thing that you need to do is be willing to invest the time necessary for intimacy to grow. Intimacy takes time. You must be willing to invest the time with your key customers to get to know them on a personal level. You must invest the time learning about them, their backgrounds, their business challenges and even their personal aspirations. It is only through this investment of time that the right kind of relationship will grow. You also need to be open to new learning opportunities. A friend of mine who is a frequent keynote speaker was talking to a CIO after one of his speeches not too long ago. He asked the CIO how often he spent time with the company's external customers. The CIO gave him a strange look and said, "I don’t. Why would I do that?" The entire idea seemed foreign to him. But to build these kinds of intimate relationships you need to not only be willing to invest time with your customers, but you must be willing to invest time caring about the things that they care about. And if you're doing the math, you will quickly realize that if you are to be an effective, modern IT leader, you will be spending a significant amount of your time everywhere but the inside of the IT department. That can be tough to manage and balance, but it means that you will need to become highly effective from an operational perspective so that you can invest more and more of your time building the kind of intimacy that will allow you to take your organization where it must go.

This is the seventh article in my eight-part series on creating a next-generation IT organization. The last step, which we will cover in the final article, is about bringing all of the pieces together. But the need for a deeply intimate relationship between you and your customers is perhaps the most critical step you can take in the process. You need to get through the first steps to have a chance of success, but intimacy is what will ultimately transform both your organization and you as a leader. I truly believe that it will only be the leaders who have the courage and humility to create these kinds of deeply intimate relationships that will survive. The only question is whether you have the courage to be intimate.

About the Author

Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him on Twitter via @charlesaraujo.

Editor's note: This is the seventh installment of an eight-part article series titled "Seven Steps to a Next-Generation IT Organization." To read the previous installment, "The Courage of the Transparent CIO," click here.