Former CIO Becky Blalock reflects on her decades-long career in IT and offers advice about self-confidence, risk taking, leadership and the lack of women in IT.
As it turned out, this was one of the best moves I could have made. I did not realize this until a young woman I worked with helped me understand this. She was on my team in accounting and came to the IT organization shortly after me. About six months into the IT position, she said to me, "You are a better leader in IT than you were in accounting." I was stunned by this comment. I had considered myself the subject matter expert in accounting and felt like I was operating by the seat of my pants in IT. I asked her to elaborate. She said, "You built a lot of our systems and processes in accounting and were known to micro manage and really get into the details. In IT you are truly leading. You stay out of the details and trust your team to get the work done. You are here to support us and cheer us on and you only get involved when we need you to help resolve an issue. You are engaged with our customers and vendors, and you provide the strategic direction we need."
This conversation was a wake-up call for me. Leading is very different from managing, and the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less you know sometimes. The key to these jobs is who you surround yourself with and the support you give them.
You talk about taking risks to the point of being willing to fail and accepting failure, but at the same time you talk about the scrutinizing eyes and a low margin for error through your rise to CIO. How do you reconcile the two points? How did a failure impact you personally and the view of those around you, especially those who scrutinized your work?
As CIO, I had to make multimillion dollar decisions—often with limited information. We operate in a fast-moving world where decisions must be made quickly and with incomplete information. This is especially true in the IT world where change is the norm. You have to make sure you are doing the best job possible of taking in information and creating a culture where employees will openly challenge your thinking. You must do your best to keep up with the technical aspects of the job, but also build a trusting environment and ensure you are getting all the facts. As long as you've done your homework, gotten as much input as you can and involved the right people proactively in the decision, you can be more assured in acting on a decision.
All of this takes time and effort, but it results in a more informed decision. If the decision turns out to be a bad one, you've got a whole team involved to support you. I also believe that as a leader, it is totally your responsibility if something goes wrong. You should be the one out front taking responsibility and explaining the lessons learned and what will done to rectify the situation. People can handle bad news; what they cannot handle is no news.
As the first woman to hold this position and one of the few women in senior management, everything I did was closely scrutinized. The good news is that people are watching. If you do things the right way you have the opportunity to open the door for others to follow. The bad news is that women at the top have the additional burden of proving a woman can do the job and do it well. This additional stress placed on women can be hard for men to understand and they are often unaware of the double standard women are held to.
One of the biggest disasters I had to deal with during my tenure as a CIO was an incident where an intern was wiping our servers for which leases were expiring. We would wipe the data from a server before returning it to the vendor. Unfortunately, the intern did not disconnect the server from our network and initiated a total disaster. The cascading failure wiped out a significant amount of company data and had the potential to impact our ability to issue payroll to 26,000 employees.
The first thing I did upon learning about this disaster was to call our CEO and explain the situation to him. Because he heard about this from me, and not anyone else, he became an ally in helping us work through the issue. The next thing I did was contact the major stakeholders and let them know what had happened and what we were doing to get it fixed. We instituted our disaster recovery procedures and had everything back in 24 hours, but it was a scary time. I kept my team focused on the recovery and I took full responsibility for the incident and communicated relentlessly. Because so many people were kept proactively in the communication loop, there was no finger pointing; I had made it clear that I was responsible. Everyone forgot this mistake fairly quickly except for my team and I.