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Lessons from My Leadership Journey: Better Late Than Never, Practices I Wish I’d Adopted Sooner

| October 13, 2020

by Bill Hogue

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Bill Hogue, MOR Associates Leadership Coach, Former CIO at University of South Carolina. Bill may be reached at [email protected].]
I’ve said more than once that I’d have been a better CIO if I had participated in a MOR leadership program along the way.  I’ve had plenty of experience in my IT career and experience is surely a great teacher.  But on my leadership journey I didn’t always have the tools in my toolkit to take advantage of what I was experiencing. I didn’t always know how to convert my experience into effective strategies and practices that would benefit customers, the university, and our organization.

One of MOR’s core strengths is helping people develop a personal leadership toolkit through learning and practice.  I did doctoral work in organizational theory and behavior so I had reasonable command of fact and theory early in my career, but I didn’t have a practical toolkit and I hadn’t benefited from practice.  I didn’t have an accountability buddy or a community of support.  I could have used a good dose of MOR!  Now that I have the benefit of exquisitely clear hindsight, here are a few observations about our profession and our practices that may help you make better use of your own MOR toolkit.
1.          Own your experience and expertise.

I started my IT career in 1979 as an evening shift computer operator in a mainframe data center and have filled a number of roles since. The calendar doesn’t lie.  That means I’m in my 42nd year in the profession, mostly serving universities.  For 22 of those years my role was CIO or CIO-equivalent.

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case in Outliers that investing 10,000 hours of practice in mastering a skill – let’s say playing the ukulele – will make you a capable or even an accomplished player, if not a gifted one.  How would that investment work if I wanted to “master” IT rather than the ukulele?

To make the multiplication easy, let’s say that I’ve been working an average of 50 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for about 40 years.  That’s a staggering 100,000 hours of investment in becoming a better leader in my profession.

My point is obvious.  No matter the stage of your career you have thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of hours of experience.  MOR teaches us the importance of self-awareness.  Part of self-awareness is acknowledging and owning your expertise – and acting accordingly.

What does owning your expertise look like?  Well, in MOR workshops you’ve practiced leading an inclusive SWOT exercise that helps uncover the answers in the room.  You know how to take lists of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and work with your team to do a gap analysis and scenario planning.  You know how to delegate stretch assignments and weigh the value of the immediate versus the important.  You’re focused on results.  You know that your challenge as leader is to do the right thing while those you manage do things right.

So, you have the toolkit.  And you bring tens-of-thousands of hours of learning, experience, and professional growth to the table.  Most people probably view you as a subject matter or content expert.  People look to you for answers.

Own your expertise.  Have confidence that you are primed to deliver great outcomes, then go make it happen.

Which brings me to another observation…
2.         You don’t talk, write, and think like other people.

MOR teaches us that culture is layers deep.  The same goes for the cultures (plural) composing our profession.  It takes many squares of cloth to stitch a colorful quilt – and that is what we are:  a quilt of many colors.

Experienced health care professionals see the mind and body through different lenses than you and I.  They’ve developed an esoteric language to teach, to learn, and to describe what they observe.  They’ve developed taxonomies and classification systems to help organize masses of data about prevention, disease, and treatment.

Watch for a while and you’ll see hierarchies of status and influence, flourishing subcultures, and clashes over experimental treatments with emerging technologies versus tried and true methodologies with proven clinical outcomes.  EMTs racing trauma victims to the ER and dermatologists working nine-to-five in the suburbs share the common goal of tending to patient needs.   But they don’t necessarily see the day-to-day reality of health care from the same perspective.  And speaking of divergent perspectives, some observers might give you an earful about the behavior of neurosurgeons!

Cultures are layers deep for attorneys, accountants, highway builders, petroleum engineers, teachers, plumbers, custodians, evangelical preachers, rabbis, and corporate executives.  And, yes, cultures are layers deep in our profession.

We don’t think like other people.  When I walked into a computer room for the first time I was an English major trained to think about narrative arcs in novels. When I walked back into the open air at the end of my shift, I had already begun thinking like an IT professional.   I didn’t lose my fondness for narrative arcs, but I also began thinking about sequences, priorities, processes, data flows, resource allocation, routines and subroutines, exception paths, bridges and feeds, clever algorithms and replicable processes, systems and architectures and failover options.

How we as IT professionals learn, talk, and think about our products and services may differ from the way our clients think about products and services.  We are immersed in our own cultures and subcultures, and our clients are immersed in theirs.  One of our most important jobs as leaders is to bridge cultures and find common ground.

For our projects and daily operations we use vocabulary and taxonomies and organizing principles that are alien to some of our clients.  Computer languages themselves may seem impenetrable to non-practitioners. Yet these languages are adopted and used across global communities of practitioners in a way that spoken languages never will be.  There is inherent intellectual richness and depth in our profession, but we’re not always practiced at helping other people see the complexity of our reality. As we look in the mirror the same must be said of us. 

We are sometimes unable to see our clients’ worlds through clear lenses.

As with health care professionals, watch our profession for a while and you’ll see evidence of strong subcultures.  Research and high-performance computing specialists who support faculty don’t want to be lumped with ERP applications specialists who support business operations – and the feeling goes both ways!  Operations leaders responsible for vast data farms don’t want to be mistaken for security pros who design firewalls.  Some networking wizards and systems wonks don’t want to be referenced in the same breath with anyone. In fact, some strongly prefer not to be troubled by any of the trivial issues that vex lesser mortals!

We sometimes tire of hearing that culture eats strategy for breakfast.  But the maxim is repeated so often because it is true.  In the face of this reality, MOR tools help us explore and understand culture in ways that allow sound strategies to flourish rather than languish.  If we aren’t challenging and stretching ourselves to more deeply comprehend the cultures around us then – as leaders – we’re not doing the right thing.

MOR emphasizes that relationships are currency.  We have “The 4 I’s” – Initiate, Inquire, Invest, Influence – to build our professional and personal networks by reaching out beyond our own narrow subcultures.  How else can we possibly understand the needs of our clients who don’t talk and think the same way we do? And how can we lead strategic initiatives successfully if we don’t have relationships that transcend organizational subcultures and help people find common ground?

Which brings me to the next observation…
3.          A good leader needs to be a good storyteller.

I’ll be back in a future Tuesday Reading to tell you about Bobby, a masterful storyteller and the most effective university lobbyist I’ve ever known.  You won’t be surprised to learn that his storytelling contributed powerfully to his success.

I’ll also draw upon the wisdom of J.R.R. Tolkien – think wandering and glittering gold.  Remember a big hit from the last century called The Gambler, sung by Kenny Rogers?   If not, check it out.  I’ll be making the case that The Gambler is a song worth remembering the next time you’re in a tense meeting.

Until then, take a few moments to express three gratitudes today.  You’ll be glad you did.  Best wishes.