CIOs know we have a challenge – we must transform our teams and perhaps even ourselves to meet the demands of the new digital era.
In our 2017 survey of Canadian CIOs, the concern rang out loud and clear. Staffing, skills gap, building a more productive workforce were three of the top 10 “day-to-day concerns” that CIOs reported. Moreover, when we asked about digital transformation efforts, the company’s image with employees and customers was second only to meeting customer expectations.
We clearly know we have a challenge – the question is, what do we do about it?  I got some good advice and practical tips from Morag Barrett, co-author of The Future-Proof Workplace when she came to Toronto recently to speak at a Society of Information Management (SIM) dinner.
For those who don’t know SIM, it’s an organization dedicated to connecting aspiring IT leaders with seasoned CIOs and senior IT Professionals.  It has close to 5,000 members spread across 40 locations in North America.  Toronto is the only Canadian chapter but has a very active program.
Barrett is an HR consultant who specializes in the challenges faced by information technology companies and departments.

A calamity coming 

According to Barrett, it’s not just a transition, “we have a calamity coming” if we don’t act to address what she says is “right under our noses” with the onset of robotics and artificial intelligence and the revolutionary changes that technology is bringing to the workplace.
While our challenges are firmly of the 21st century, Barrett says “our people practices and attitudes to work are rooted, not just in the 20th century, but some are still in the 19th century, when the industrial revolution faced largely uneducated workforces migrating from farms to the emerging factories.”
Her book focuses on six areas that we must address if we are to close this gap. In my discussion with her, she focused on three – purpose, culture, and leadership.
Barrett’s claim that “mission and vision were so banal and saccharine they did nothing,” echoes what so many of us have felt, but didn’t think we could address, particularly while trying to build “strategic partnerships” with the business areas.
“While in the 20th century we had mission and vision, today we have purpose,” states Barrett.     “Purpose, as Simon Sinec said in his book Start With Why answers the why.” While Barrett noted that this idea of purpose was critically important to millennials and generation Z, her description of purpose as “how am I connecting to a legacy of which I can be proud” would echo with those of us on the opposite end of the age spectrum.
The second key area is culture. Culture is “how business gets done,” Barrett says. In a world where no one reads a process and procedures manual and where we struggle with the balance of empowerment and the need for controlled operation of IT, the best companies are now looking to culture.”
Barrett notes that “we’ve seen examples in the media of cultures gone wild.” High technology companies are not exempt. Uber is only one of the recent examples of how a tech giant can falter in a marketplace it has dominated by allowing destructive elements to creep into their culture. “If you are not paying attention to culture, then you get the culture you deserve, not the culture you want.”
Leadership was the last area Barrett addressed in our conversation but is an area that all CIOs are thinking about. According to CanadianCIO’s 2017 study, 36 pet cent of respondents felt that their companies were looking to senior IT staff to provide needed leadership in an era of digital transformation – a close second to the 43 per cent who mentioned C-level executives.  According to Barrett, this rings true.  She states that “20th-century leadership was a certain demographic, it was command and control and it resided in the C-Suite.” Those of us who grew up in IT would recognize this.  But as Barrett notes, that’s not where we are (or need to be) today.  “Today leadership exists at all levels and we need to be embracing it and making it much more fluid.”

An uncommon discipline

So what is the remedy for the issues that we face? Barrett had some very practical advice to share. She notes that this might seem like “common sense, but it’s an uncommon discipline.” We might think the solutions are obvious, but our actions don’t show it. “Our policies and procedures don’t change. Just because it’s the way it has been, doesn’t mean that it’s the way it needs to be for the future.”
The first thing to do, says Barrett, is to stop. “Stop running on your hamster wheel and pause long enough to ask what’s working and what’s not working.”
The second thing is to “involve employees at all levels. Don’t treat this like it’s ‘secret squirrel’ where you plan this is a room by yourself and come out and say ‘ta-da.’ Inclusion is what breeds commitment.  Stop. Ask the questions and listen to the responses.”
Barrett notes that you may find some cynics, even among your employees. She tells the story of one engineering firm where she attempted to engage the executive and their team in something she calls “ripples and joys.” In this, she asks questions about the “ripples” we create in the company asking “what impacts have we had on the projects or the business?” Alternately, she asks about “joy” questioning “what has made you happy at home or at work in the last seven days?”
Barrett smiled as she noted that “The first week you could see everyone rolling their eyes and saying “oh, God, group hugs.  I hate it. But by the end of the month the change in the quality of the relationships was transformational, collaboration and teamwork went up. Mistakes and rework went down. Candor went up. There were warnings of impending disasters (instead of surprises). Business efficiency was positively impacted.”

ROI and Metrics

A former financial analyst, Barrett notes that the end goal of her approach is real and measurable results.  She urges companies to “capture the metrics” which, in her experience, will show results. But equally, she doesn’t feel that CIOs should evangelize or combat naysayers. “Don’t try to convince them,” she says. “Start small. Start with what you can control.  In the end, you will have the best and the brightest in your industry clamouring to join you and when that happens, you will get your CEO’s attention.”
Barret’s approach is distinctly practical and aimed at breaking the cycle of what she calls “admiring the gap… Many organizations are doing engagement surveys.  How engaged are our employees?  In the 25 years we’ve been doing these, the needle has barely moved.”
In her approach, which she calls, “baby steps” she recommends that CIOs, “take your employee satisfaction survey. Then sit down with a cross-section of your staff and ask what it would take to move the needle? What would make a difference? What would make this a place where you would want to come to work, not where you have to come to work?
If you don’t have an employee survey, Barrett says, “you can develop one with as little as five questions.”  The real issue is to “start implementing the suggestions.” She notes that the responses are not ‘one size fits all’. “It doesn’t require fun slides and free food. You don’t have to keep up with the Googles of the world.”

Real leadership

It’s this focus on action that makes Barrett’s approach so refreshing.  “Most of us know what we should be doing.  We’re still not doing it. There is no silver bullet because if there was we’d be doing it.  It’s common sense, but it requires an uncommon discipline.”
Barrett challenges leaders to truly take stock of their own contribution – or lack of it.  “Do we deliver what we say were are going to deliver?  Or do we make excuses? If the answer is, we don’t live up to our promises, let’s get those bits right and the rest will follow.”

Don’t tolerate “Brilliant Jerks” – Especially if it’s you

Barrett shared with me a great quote from Reed Hastings at Netflix – “”Don’t tolerate brilliant jerks, the cost to teamwork is too high.”
“I think he’s nailed it there,” she says. “Don’t excuse poor behavior. People will excuse poor behaviour because that’s the way it’s always been in this industry. Or it’s ‘just that person, you’ll just have to…’ No.  You set the tone. If you truly believe that you can want to effect change in your organization then you need to be a role model yourself and that means getting the bad apples out if you have them or at least giving them a chance to .coach up or coach out.'”
Which led to the inevitable question. How do we know if we are the “brilliant jerks?” How do we know we aren’t the problem?
Barrett notes how difficult this is. “One of the hardest things to know if you are a brilliant jerk. In my first book, I talk about the concept of allies – your best friend at work – someone who can give you a kick in the pants if you need it.  You’d better hope you can find an ally, or if you don’t, you need someone like me.
Barrett sees her role as providing this advice when others cannot or will not. “I see my role as a truth speaker. When I have to come up to you and tell you, you are part of the problem. If at that time, there isn’t a willingness to accept … or an inability to hear tough feedback then this client isn’t ready, not just for our program but ready to change.”  She notes, with the experience of one who has seen the problem first hand, “the worst that happens is that you don’t invite me back. If you’re not ready to hear the truth, it won’t matter anyway.”
For us to provide the type of leadership that is needed to future-proof our teams and our own careers, getting and taking advice is essential. “You have to be curious and get feedback, not just from the usual suspects. You have to listen to feedback from different perspectives so that you know when you look in the mirror, is that a jerk or a brilliant leader?”
As we concluded the interview, I picked up the book that she handed me at the start of our interview.  I look forward to reading it over the holidays and taking a good look in the mirror.

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