Capturing the can-do spirit

In 1973, Craig B. Luigart spent his days in the bilge of a U.S. Navy minesweeper, waist-deep in oily water, chipping old paint off the ship’s engines. “Day after day with a chisel and hammer I was miserable,” says Luigart, now CIO at the U.S. Department of Education.

But he received this advice from his then wife-to-be, counsel that has served him well during the ensuing decades: “Act enthusiastic, and you’ll be enthusiastic.

“I’ve always been an optimist as to what could be done, and there’s always a way to mitigate the negative of what can’t be done,” Luigart adds.

And, if you’re in a management position, your people will pick up on that, Luigart says. “Enthusiasm and optimism and well-crafted statements of vision are all contagious,” he says.

Luigart supervises a staff of 100 and has 16 bosses: the assistant secretaries of education. He says 90 per cent of his job is dealing with cultural issues and 10 per cent with technical ones. “Most CIOs have a sense of vision, but the hard part is turning the vision into execution,” he says. “The ability to articulate the vision in a business sense, not a technology sense, is critical to the process.”

When Luigart, 47, arrived at the department two years ago, he found it comprised “a dozen or so highly vertical stovepipes.” And there was scant strategic linkage between IT and the business units. Luigart set about to instil among senior managers throughout the agency a vision in which technology serves education.

“I began to explain the concept of enterprise management of technology,” Luigart says. “I also explained the need, as we move into the post-Gutenberg age, to create the kind of solutions being demanded by teachers to help move education into the 21st century.” Luigart established an engineering review board, a data standards board, a security review board and an investment governance board.

Asked how he got all the managers to line up, Luigart says, “You have to invest yourself in them. Sending them a brief isn’t the answer. You have to be in their office, make your case, hear their objections and fears, and handle those.” He says he has a rule to spend at least an hour and a half every two months face to face with each of the assistant secretaries. Actually, he has 25 “Luigart’s Rules,” which include “communicate, cooperate, coordinate”; “hire people smarter than you”; “undercommit and overdeliver”; and “those things get done that the boss checks on.”

While Luigart says his vision centres on the mission of the Department of Education, not on technology per se, others say he’s keenly interested in IT.

Former colleague Ron Turner, deputy CIO for the U.S. Navy, recalls, “One of his funniest quirks was what we called his Monday tear-out sessions. Craig would take an hour or so and go through all the latest trade magazines looking for alpha and beta products. He’d walk out of his office and start handing out whatever he tore out of the magazines, and we’d have to figure out how these technologies worked, which usually meant us spending a lot of time with the vendors in their R&D labs.”

“Luigi, as we called him in the Navy, is a systems thinker,” says Navy Vice Adm. Joe Dyer, head of the Naval Air Systems Command. “His ability to transition from vision to reality is unique. Some have vision, many can implement, but few can do both. Luigi can.”