Cultivating a new CIO culture: Leaders must establish shared values, and then live them

Leaders must establish shared values, and then live them

As IT leaders, we know we must be agents of change. Some of us have embraced this challenge more readily than others. The main reason we have struggled to meet this new expectation is that for years CIOs were not valued for their leadership skills, per se, but rather for the project management and technical skills necessary to meet the basic block-and-tackling of IT service delivery.

Now we find ourselves setting strategy and creating opportunities. What this means is that we can no longer lead through control of projects and resources, expecting our staff to do as we say. Rather, we have to demonstrate we are worthy of being followed. We need to be authentic. Authenticity of leadership is the first step toward building high-performance teams.

A high-performing IT organization has a culture that I call purposeful. This culture is characterized by:

  • A clear, compelling purpose that drives decisions and ignites passion among employees.
  • Shared values that serve as guidelines for delivering on the organization’s promise to its constituents.
  • A work environment that encourages individuals to take ownership of the organization’s performance and its culture.

The successful integration of performance with culture starts with the CIO. We establish our organization’s shared values. Then we live them.

I have experienced how powerful an organization becomes when this is done well. But I have also been in situations where I have neglected to connect my goals with those of my team and my company.

Early in my career I had a management style best described as “lightning rod.” I loved to be at the centre of things. I relished being the person everyone called when they needed to get something done. This role was helpful in situations where I needed to create the appearance of cohesion in a team, like when the business had a negative perception of IT. I was able to cut through roadblocks and force action. It made me look good.

However, I failed to notice the negative impact of my management approach over time. During this period, my decisions reflected my own purposes. I left organizations regularly, seeking the next big thing. And I left my teams rudderless because I had not developed effectively the capabilities of everyone around me. Their business relationships suffered, and negative perceptions crept back when I left.

I was continuing along this path of charismatic control until one day someone pulled me aside and challenged me to give away my “power.” Terry Pearce , author of Leading Out Loud, was conducting a workshop with my team. He urged me to rise above my tendencies and become a more engaged leader. I began developing shared values and attempting to create a purposeful culture. I told my direct reports my plans and asked them to hold me accountable.

Here are three ways that you can improve your connection to your team and begin building a purposeful culture:

  • Connect with your organization’s purpose and values. I look for the key element of the overall strategy and attach IT to it, so the team can see how their efforts enable the organization’s success.
  • Evaluate and align key IT practices so they promote enhanced performance, risk-taking and commitment. We have continuous improvement teams, which look for opportunities to celebrate success, create recognition and reward programs, and streamline processes.
  • Model the organization’s purpose and values. I try to greet every person by name and express a sincere interest in what they are doing. When we promote someone, we highlight that person’s results and behaviours.

We built our organization by hiring a lot of outsiders. As we started to promote from within, we proved that we were willing to work with people to grow internally. This, in conjunction with a clear career path grid, has made it easier for managers to match their staffs with projects that will help them achieve their career goals within the company.

Bad leaders use control to get results. Good leaders get people to work for them. Great leaders get people to work for a cause that is greater than any of them, and then for one another in service of that cause. Engaging in a common purpose and executing that purpose according to shared principles enables your team to accomplish something no individual could do alone. This is what our role as IT leaders is all about.

Tom Murphy is senior vice-president and CIO with AmerisourceBergen. He can be reached at

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