A Career-Changing Kick in the Teeth

By Doug Moran  |  Posted 10-21-2009

A Career-Changing Kick in the Teeth

About twenty years ago, some friends and I took a trip to the backcountry of Montana. We were the classic suburbanites who wanted to get a taste of "roughing it." In preparation, we cleaned out the stock of hiking and camping gear at the local REI store.

Fortunately, we were aware of our own inadequacies and hired a guide who had the skills and knowledge that we lacked. 

As we planned the trip, the guide came to know us.  He asked what each of us wanted to gain from the experience and determined what our individual limitations were. He mapped out our venture by combining our expectations and capabilities with his understanding of the environment and wildness skills. Along the way, he made adjustments based on our endurance and adaptability. The guide's value came from helping us integrate into a new world.

So, what does roughing it in Montana have to do with being a world-class IT leader? I wish I could say that I went home from that adventure applying the lessons of the trip to my career. Instead, I spent the next twenty years learning and growing to become an effective IT leader.

Purely by chance, I adopted many of the same skills that made our guide extraordinary. My journey took some interesting twists and turns, and I learned and grew along the way.

I felt like an outsider for much of my career. I was an IT leader who had never written a line of code.  I was always trying to prove myself to my colleagues. To many of my business partners and clients, I was "the guy from IT." As an outsider, I was constantly trying to fit in. I struggled to demonstrate how I added value. 

It finally occurred to me that my real value came from being the outsider. My years of trying to fit in helped me understand what the various stakeholder groups needed and wanted from each other. I began to become a guide. I wasn't leading groups of twenty-somethings through the mountains of Montana; rather, I was leading teams to create value and solve business problems using technology.

Like our Montana guide, my value came from my ability to integrate the different worlds.I was fortunate to have an "a-ha moment" to initiate this change in thinking. I was the business information officer for a nascent division in a fast-growing financial services company. I had been with the business unit for several weeks and felt things were going well.

Following a team meeting, the head of the business asked me to stay behind for a moment. I was sure that he wanted to commend me for the quality of the technical solutions that I had contributed to the conversation. Instead, he clarified my role: "If you are just going to be our IT leader, we don't need you," he said. "You are a leader in this business, and I need your input on every facet of what we are doing."

That kick in the teeth changed my career. I came to that job as an IT professional with business skills. His words helped me reverse that description. I became a business leader with technology skills. 

Becoming Authentic

This shift created a new set of challenges. Many of my IT colleagues observed that I had "gone native." I had spent almost fifteen years building my credibility as an IT professional, and now I found myself back outside the IT circle. I responded by trying to strike a balance between the business and IT worlds. When I was with the business, I acted one way; with IT, I acted another.Not surprisingly, I continued to struggle. I had become inauthentic. No one knew the real me.

I eventually learned that the solution was not balancing two worlds--it was integrating the many worlds that I was a part of. Success required broadening and shifting my perspective. The business leaders I respected most led by integrating the various parts of their businesses. They did not try to become expert in each area, but they knew how they all fit together. Like my Montana guide, they saw the strengths, opportunities, risks and problems. I began to realize that I had to think and act the same way.  I had to elevate and broaden my thinking--to think like a CEO. 

This approach offered its own set of challenges. It meant making difficult and sometimes selfless decisions. One of my first acts after making this shift was to cancel a project that represented 80 percent of my team's work for the coming year. Successfully implemented, this high-profile project could have helped my career.

Unfortunately, the idea behind the project was defective and it could have been disastrous for the business. I looked at the project from the broadest perspective. I integrated what I knew about our resources, capabilities and the business needs. I saw the flaws and made the case to kill it. I was the guide integrating multiple worlds. 

I knew that my shift was working by the nature of the conversations I was having. One incident convinced me that I had succeeded. During a contentious budget conversation, my division president was pushing hard to find cuts. Someone suggested that we start with all of the staff groups:  IT, finance, HR and so on. The division president concurred with one exception: "IT isn't staff," he said. "It's a core business function."

We spend our lives crossing boundaries from one world to the next. Every group speaks its own language and has its own culture. How we choose to think and act determines our outcomes.

We can feel like outsiders, or we can choose to understand and integrate the various perspectives. In the process, we can become guides. We will be welcomed when we seek to understand. We will be respected when we demonstrate our knowledge, skills and abilities. We will be truly valued when we combine them to deliver integrated solutions to the problems we face.

As guides, we understand both the environment and those who will be using it. Our success and long-term relevance lies in our ability to understand and integrate the needs of all of our stakeholders.

CIOs must become effective guides. More importantly, we must teach this skill to everyone in our organizations.

Doug Moran is the author of the forthcoming book, If You Will Lead:  Enduring Wisdom for 21st-Century Leaders, and founder of the consultancy If You Will Lead, LLC. He was previously a CIO with Capital One and served in a number of roles in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including deputy secretary of health and human resources, COO of the department of social services and telecommunications director.