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Alicia Blain

CIO


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote: “ I don’t think we have any choice.  I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game.”   ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Connecting with our employees and customers and adapting our mindset gets us ready to play a different game.  But you also need action and to do that you have to be willing to RESHAPE your organization.  To Reshape is the third module in the C.A.R.E. System. To visualize just how you can begin to do that, let’s go to our Starbucks example.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

Here are 3 examples of actionable steps that Gillett took to reshape his IT team and their reputation.

1.     He forced collaboration between teams.  In the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership, we call this “Letting go of Silos”.  Silos are rampant across corporate America and they are innovation and motivation killers for most employees but especially Millennials.  One of the key Millennial characteristics is their collaborative spirit.  They work best in groups and the more you mix up the group the better. Imagine their surprise when they show up for work and see that business units barely interact with one another and they certainly don’t share and collaborate very much. In his pitch for a new business unit, Gillett forced the collaboration of the IT and Marketing teams.  Talk about silos that don’t normally have much in common.  The new unit was called Digital Ventures and Gillett hired an entrepreneur to run it instead of a corporate type. Now that’s playing a different game.

 2.     He let the employees choose their technology and propose new ideas. At a time when so many IT shops are still fighting the consumerization of IT here is a company that allows their employees to select from a wide assortment of technology, from Macs to PCs to smartphones to get work done. To be completely fair, the article did say that Starbucks modeled their Tech Café after the Apple Store. That brings up a good point.  We should always be scouting the market for techniques that work for others and how they can be customized for our specific organizations.  What I liked the most was that they welcomed feedback from the employees on all things concerning IT.  In the C.A.R.E. System, we call that IT Advocacy.  Millennials are the first generation of workers that actually want more technology than what currently exists in the workplace.  No matter what team they work for, they can be invaluable to an IT Dept.  But IT has to take the first step and request their help and then be open to the suggestions given. As IT Advocates, Millennials can be a wonderful test group for any new product, process, or upgrade that the IT Department is considering. If done properly, IT Advocates can be a great extension of the IT Department.  As IT partners, they also create a great fan base for IT in the company.

3.     Applying expertise from an unrelated field to solve a different problem.  Gillett had little retail experience before working at Starbucks and according to the article he had never worked on the scale of a Starbucks.  But he had worked for companies with big networks like Yahoo. Instead of disregarding that experience, he leveraged it to understand the retail giant and apply that seemingly unrelated experience at Starbucks.  Gillett is quoted in the article as saying:  “[…] big Internet, like Yahoo, had solved a lot of the technical challenges that big retail had yet to solve… If you think of all your stores like nodes on a network, and all your resisters as computers rather than cash registers, you can start to manage and deploy […] like Yahoo would a server farm […]”   Many examples exist in business of how breakthrough ideas and products are discovered when a solution that worked in a completely unrelated field is applied to solve a different problem.

 Sometimes, organizations are too narrow-minded in how they view and value experience.  Perhaps an employee in your team has expertise in solving problems in another field that can be the breakthrough idea you need to solve a problem.  You’ll never leverage that unrelated expertise if you don’t know about it or you don’t support it or you don’t find an outlet to try it out.  Experimentation is the subject of our last post in the series and a pivotal one for transformation to occur.

Quote: “What they needed was a leader to bring the organization to a new audience in a new way.”       ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us.

If you’re not quite sure why Millennials are an organization’s “new audience”, I invite you to read through some of my past blogs to get a thorough understanding of this unfamiliar group.  As leaders, we won’t be able to really reach that new audience unless we are willing to create a new way or at the very least question our existing way to see if it will work going forward.

That’s why it’s so important for us to ADAPT and find a new way so our next generation employees are engaged and productive in our teams.  ADAPT is the second module of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership and it’s an important one because it has to do with a leader’s state of mind. ADAPT is all about mindset and getting comfortable testing your boundaries.

So what specific things can we do to ADAPT our leadership style?  Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for ideas.  As the new CIO, Gillett embraced 3 things that got him out of his comfort zone and ready to ADAPT and find a new way to lead his IT team.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

1.     He was curious and courageous. The article quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as saying that Gillett “had an insatiable curiosity and wasn’t afraid of pursing big, bold ideas.” Curiosity and courage are key components of the C.A.R.E. System.  To change and adapt to a new way of doing things and of leading is not easy.  You are fighting yourself and those in the organization that want to keep the status quo alive.  Without being inherently curious, asking lots of “why do we do it that way” questions and being willing to fight the good fight, it is very difficult to ADAPT and give your new audience – the Millennials – a new way.

 2.    He asked for even more responsibility.  In early 2009, Gillett has been in Starbucks for just one year and realizes he inherited what can only be termed an IT nightmare. At the same time, Starbuck’s new CEO, Howard Schultz,asks the company executives to give him ideas on how to turn the company around. He urges them to think outside their corporate functions. Does Gillett ignore his boss’ request because he legitimately reasons he already has too much on his plate? No. He goes ahead and pitches an idea for Starbucks to make a venture capital investment in a new business unit designed to push the company’s mobile and online strategy.  That was a gutsy move.  Instead of sticking to what he knew and focusing on just that, Gillett saw a rare opportunity to be part of a transformation at Starbucks.  It required him to take on more than he probably could chew at that time. He got out of his comfort zone and adapted his mindset to take on a strategic challenge and he succeeded. According to the article, since creating the new venture “Starbucks has become a retail leader in mobile payments”. By stretching yourself and getting uncomfortable you push yourself to try new things.  Like a muscle, the more you use it, the more comfortable you become letting go of your status quo.

 3.   He instilled an entrepreneurial spirit into IT.  That’s very rare to see.  IT departments in most large organizations these days are all about following the rules, often playing it safe, and saying a lot of NO in the interest of “security”.  In the next post, we will see examples of what Gillett did that went against these typical IT practices.  The examples were possible because he elected to run IT not so much as a corporate business unit but rather as an entrepreneurial venture. They opened themselves up to try new things.  The focus was to address the needs of its customers – both inside and outside the corporate walls. That ultimately showcased IT as an enabler instead of  a cop.

 In today’s super competitive, global marketplace,  organizations that don’t want to fall behind need to be run by leaders that are open to adapting their frame of mind and leadership frameworks to make way for the future. They need to ADAPT and find new ways for their new audience – the Millennials.

Quote“ If you’re not  uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader”  ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Being uncomfortable is how transformation begins.  When I first started hiring Millennials, I didn’t want to change.  The more they perplexed me, the more I dug my heels in my comfort zone.  It wasn’t until I decided to understand why they perplexed me that the transformation in my leadership style took place and led to the creation of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership. That led to first seeing the potential Millennials brought to the workplace then tapping it then capitalizing on it.

The first step in doing that is to CONNECT.   Many of us who cut our management teeth in the 20th Century approach leadership like this:  I, leader, have a certain leadership style that you, employee, will need to get comfortable with.  It is not my responsibility to figure you out or adapt my style to meet your needs.  You need to conform to my style and work effectively under that style. 

Really?  Do we really want to lead that way?  Does it work for us?  If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that working for a boss that took the time to know us and spend quality time with us are the ones we liked working for and worked the hardest for.  Now more than ever, making a special connection with each of our employees is not only critical but expected.  The more removed we are from our staff, the less effective they will be and that will reflect back to us.  We also minimize our message and our vision.  We need that direct connection to our teams to spread our message and communicate our goals.

So how can you begin to CONNECT?   Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for real world examples. Here’s the link to the Information Week article. 

As the new CIO for Starbucks, one of the first things Stephen Gillett did was connect with the people in the trenches and with Starbuck’s customers.  How did he do that? He shadowed them by actually working in one of the retail stores. This is one of the key components in the C.A.R.E. System.   As a leader you need to spend time with your target audience whether it’s your employees or your customers.  It’s important for 3 reasons:

  1.  You see firsthand how employees work.  You can observe their thinking process as they complete their tasks.  How is that thought process unique and can you leverage it in other areas or functions in your team?  You also see how they do their tasks.  Are there shortcuts that they are taking and are unaware of that help speed up the work? Can those shortcuts be applied in other areas of your operation? Or perhaps they are missing important steps that require more training?  Is there duplication of work that you were not aware of?  No report or spreadsheet analysis will give you that kind of intelligence.
  2. You see if the process works or doesn’t.  In the case of Gillett, as he worked at a Starbucks store, he quickly realized that the point-of –sale (POS) system was broken.  Even though the Starbucks brass knew the limitations of the system they were more focused on growth strategies and opening stores.  They didn’t realize that the limitations of the POS were contributing to problems in opening new stores.
  3. You are able to make better and more intelligent decisions when prioritizing projects based on your firsthand experiences in the trenches.

If shadowing is effective downstream – working directly with your employees and/or customers, it is equally effective upstream – with your executive team.  After spending time shadowing downstream at a Starbucks store, Gillett decided to bring the same experience upstream, to the executive team. He created a Tech Derby which is really a live simulation of a problem showing the pain points and a proposed solution to the problem. The simulation acted as a shadowing opportunity. Through a large-screen display, the executive team, including the CEO, Howard Schultz, shadowed a barista painfully placing an order in the outdated POS system.  They got to see not just hear about how much time was wasted as the baristas had to translate orders so the POS system could capture them. Then, through a mock up of the proposed replacement system, the executive team was able to shadow the new process to see how much faster and more effective it was. 

According to the article, “When they showed both to Schultz, ‘he just turned around and said, When? And whatever you’re going to tell me, it has to be faster’”.  That’s how effective shadowing is and how powerful the concept of Connecting is to introduce change.

Imagine how connecting with your Millennials or others in your team can give you a bird’s eye view to what’s going on in the trenches.  Imagine how many things you’ll be able to discover, uncover and identify that can be game changers to your team and ultimately your organization.  The days when leaders could run teams by just interacting with their direct reports without a strong connection to their team members are disappearing quickly.  The opportunity for innovation and real transformation lie with the ideas and creativity of those closest to the problems your team faces every day.  You need to connect with them to tap and harness that creativity and find innovative solutions.

What examples do you have that illustrate how you CONNECT with your employees?

Recently, I was conducting a workshop with Ben, the CIO of a mid-size company and his direct reports. The CIO was having trouble holding on to his young workforce.  More than that, he really couldn’t figure them out. He brought me so I could help them understand, engage and retain Millennials, those pesky 20-somethings that are now coming into the workplace in droves. Ben’s situation wasn’t unusual. Millennials in the workplace  and what to do with them is a very hot topic these days and a real pain point for CIOs and other leaders.

In the meeting, shared my personal “Millennial” journey as a Senior VP of IT in a Fortune 500 company and how I went from total aggravation with Millennials to complete amazement at the contributions they could make in the workplace under the right conditions.

I explained to the group that I was able to make this transformation by creating a lab and putting Millennials in the workplace under the microscope to observe them intently and understand what made them tick.  In doing so, I quickly realized that the leadership style and approach I had taken with previous generations of employees were simply not effective with the new breed of 20-somethings.  After many experiments – many that worked and some that failed – a pattern began to emerge that clearly showed me that I needed a different framework to get through to these Millennials and capitalize on their unique perspective.  I ultimately called the new framework the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership.  C.A.R.E. stands for Connect, Adapt, Reshape and Experiment.

As I was sharing specific examples of how I began to incorporate C.A.R.E. into my leadership style, Ben, the CIO, raised his hand and asked a great question. 

“Alicia, would it be possible for you to highlight examples of specific steps I can take as a CIO to begin to put your C.A.R.E. System into action. Are there any examples out there of CIOs or organizations that you can point to that can help illustrate the key elements of your C.A.R.E. System.

I couldn’t have asked for a better segue way.  Ben’s question highlights a need we all have to see and drill down on examples that can help us make necessary and oftentimes uncomfortable changes.  The examples help us understand new concepts, demonstrate how the concept was implemented and give us food for thought on how we can incorporate them into our particular work environment.

Ben’s question was refreshing for 2 reasons. The first is that it was a good indicator that he acknowledged that change was necessary.  Unlike many leaders, he didn’t think that holding on to the status quo and old patterns was going to solve the problem.  He was open to trying new things. Secondly, he accepted responsibility for initiating the change and wanted guidance on how to start.

Over the next four posts, I will share with you the real world case study that I used to show Ben and his direct reports how to exemplify how the core concepts of the C.A.R.E. System can be used to effectively lead Millennials in the workplace .

The organization that will be highlighted in the case study is Starbucks and the person spotlighted is Stephen Gillett, its new CIO.

I welcome you to click here to read a recent article in Information Week written by Chris Murphy that spotlights the Starbucks CIO as the Chief of the Year.

 Full disclosure:  I don’t know Stephen Gillett personally other than what I read in the Information Week article and he has never heard about the C.A.R.E. System.  I am using him in the case study because of specific examples of techniques or approaches that were highlighted in the article.  The techniques help me illustrate real world examples of each of the 4 modules in the C.A.R.E. model that I know to be effective when leading next generation workers.

In my next post:  we begin look at the Starbucks case study for techniques on how to Connect – the first module in the C.A.R.E. System

Recently I finished reading Seth Godin’s book, TRIBES: We Need You to Lead Us.  It’s a quick read and I have been recommending it as a must read for corporate leaders as a starting place to challenge our thinking. In each of my posts, I will be quoting from the book to set the tone for us to be open to change.

In Tribes, Seth writes: “And if you insist on playing today’s games by yesterday’s rules, you’re stuck.  Stuck with a stupid strategy.  Because the world has changed.”

Change is a constant and our next generation leaders, the Millennials in the workplace, are counting on us to change and leverage their potential.

“Alicia, I’m up to my eyeballs in work and more keeps getting piled on. The last thing I need is to deal with a bunch of kids that have no clue how things get done at work but want to show me a better way of doing things. If it’s been good enough for us, it’ll be good enough for them, too.” 

Bob was the CIO of a mid-size company and his tirade didn’t end there. It went on for another few minutes as he let out his frustration with managing the Millennials in his team.  As a leadership expert who specializes in the Millennial generation and Next Generation leadership issues, I get to hear similar tirades from clients and in networking events.  This happened to be a networking event and the minute Bob found out what I did, he started spewing.

It’s called F.U.D.  Many years ago, I had a finance professor that used this acronym as he tried to explain market volatility. It stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.  Since then I’ve heard the term used in a variety of contexts and as Bob was talking, it kept flashing through my mind. Bob was locked in the status quo.  Just the mere thought of having to deal with something unfamiliar during such tumultuous times made his head hurt. 

Millennials represent the unfamiliar to Bob and many of today’s leaders and it puts them in FUD mode.  Instead of trying to understand and embrace the Millennials and use the experience as an opportunity to change their thinking [Oh, Nooooo!], these leaders go into what I call the hunker mentality:  they firmly grasp the old, conventional way of leading and seeing things and refuse to open their minds to the possibility of a new way. The more Millennials try to infuse a different perspective into the team or the workplace, the more hunkered down these leaders get in the old ways.

Here’s the problem with the hunker mentality: the more leaders in a company that prescribe to that mentality, the more at risk that company is to being left behind. Instead of seeing the Millennial FUD factor as a bad thing, smart leaders are using it as a wake-up call to find new ways of leading that begin to incorporate the unique perspectives the Millennials bring so they can attract, motivate and engage them going forward.  Let’s not forget that the Millennials are the next generation leaders and the world they will lead is starkly different than the world that created the old, conventional ways. Let’s also not forget that as Baby Boomers, many of us won’t be retiring as planned. So if your strategy was to “get out of dodge” before the massive influx of Millennials hit your workplace,  you may want to re-think that strategy, huh?

So are you in FUD-land?  Go ahead. Take a chance. Acknowledge the FUD factor, get uncomfortable and try new things.  It will ultimately better prepare you  to lead our next generation leaders. Years ago, I was knee deep in FUD as I started hiring Millennials at work. I was determined to figure out why.  I had to learn to get uncomfortable. I had to un-learn some leadership techniques that didn’t work anymore and upgrade some others to work in the 21st Century.  Millennials need us to get uncomfortable so we can help them become the leaders they need to be in the new normal that is just beginning to unfold. They are counting on you to work through your particular FUDs and come out on the other side. The other side is not so bad.  Really…

According to Vinnie Mirchandani’s new book, “The New Polymath”, most CIOs today are too focused on control and compliance and not enough on innovation.  I have not read Mirchandani’s new book but rather a synopsis of it written  by Larry Dignan in ZD Net called “IT today: Unsustainable, unhealthy and just plain screwed?”  Catchy title don’t you think? I happen to agree with most, if not all, of the recap points that the reporter and ultimately, Mirchandani make.   I think that many Enterprise IT departments have become a bit screwy. Obviously it wasn’t something they intentionally sought to do. 

I’ve often said that IT is a rare breed within the corporation.  If you think of any other discipline that exists – Marketing, Finance, HR, Sales, Strategy,etc. - none of them have as many critical sub-components underneath them as IT.  From the infrastructure to applications to security to the data itself and everything in between, IT encompasses a lot of critical territory within the corporation. It’s a lot to cover and on top of all that responsibility, they have to know the business as well.  Many times, what the business wants to do NOW and what IT can give them are at opposite ends of the spectrum or at least far away enough to cause friction. 

Over time I have seen IT become burdened with the role of corporate cop.   As technology has become more user friendly and corporate users have become more savvy, a lot of IT’s role has been to police them.  Then came the Sarbanes-Oxley ordeal and you can begin to see how IT is all about compliance and control.  A lot is at stake if they don’t get those things right.  Every CIOs worst nightmare is to see the name of their organization on the front page of a newspaper story on a breach of security.  Compliance and control are sadly roles thrust upon IT even when the role or responsibility should or could lie somewhere else.

Many IT groups are put in a reactive position for many reasons.  Some reactive situations are brought on by their own poor leadership and vision, others by senior management that often still does not understand what IT does, others by the unrelenting pace of change within technology and still others by their business units ,users or customers.  It is very difficult to innovate or think about innovating when you work in reactive mode.  Innovation rarely takes place at the top.  If it’s going to take place at all, it’s going to be at the ground level, in the hands of those staff members dealing with difficult situations and customers and trying to find a way around the problems. 

But you have to give them time away from their reactive activities to be able to think.  When was the last time you really stopped what you were doing and gave yourself time to think, to explore, to question, to try something new?  Chances are you haven’t done that  for a very long time especially in today’s cost cutting environment.  Even in the past, when company’s held retreats for their leadership teams, the days were so full of team building and other activities that you simply had no time to stop what you were doing and just think.

That’s why I think Innovation Labs are so great.  If you want your team to innovate or think differently, two key things need to happen.  You have to give them (and you)  the time to experiment and let ideas flow without the interruption of their day to day grind.  Secondly, let them work with others on ideas they may have.  Preferably, others in non-IT teams.  I have never seen more wonderful cross-pollination of ideas happen than when 2 or more people from different teams collaborate on a problem or idea they have that they want to test.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch and the benefits are many.  The biggest benefit is that new ideas are allowed to take root and flourish and they are nurtured by others that bring their own unique “soil” to the mix and enriches the process and the end result.

One of the big leadership lessons I learned is that you have to make room for innovation.  At least you do in IT.  The daily workload and all the other factors described by Mirchandani will certainly work against it.   You have to give people time to break away from their daily routines to experiment.   By letting them work with others you increase the chances of turbo-charging the experiment, the idea, the new solution.  If they fail, that’s ok.  That’s part of innovation.  The way to stifle innovation is by highlighting the failure.  If you celebrate it and let it take root, it will bear fruit.

The more IT leaders create a safe environment for experimentation and yes, for failure too, the more they will help fight what the catchy title of this article predicts: that IT will be unsustainable, unhealthy and screwed up.  Let innovation consume you and it will consume your team. That’s when ideas flourish and turn into products or solutions than have bottom line results.

So how about it?  When are you going to take some time to experiment? What new thing are you going to try today?

For many years, I have had the privilege of being on the Board of Advisors for the MS-MIS Program at Florida International University, otherwise known as FIU.  I’ve always enjoyed being part of a group of leaders collaborating with professors in shaping the IT curricula for the workforce of the future. Being in a university setting is so invigorating. Campus life is always teeming with energy and possibilities.  It makes you reminisce about your college days and that’s always fun to do.

In addition to making you feel energetic, did you know that college campuses across the country give you a sneak peak into the future?  They do.  The Board meetings for FIU were obviously held at their main campus.  From the beginning I made a habit of getting to the campus an hour or two before the meeting and just immerse myself in the campus life.  By now, you know that I like to observe people and things.  So at the FIU campus I was like a kid in a  candy store.  My favorite place to hangout was the cafeteria.  You remember the cafeteria back in your day, right?  That’s where the students are having fun, and studying and having great conversations with one another and just plain relaxing.  

At the time, I was already intrigued with Millennials and trying to come to terms with their unfamiliarity.  One day, as I was sitting in the cafeteria, I saw a student join his friend and tell him he had recorded his last class. The friend gave him a high 5  and quickly began to upload the file to his Apple MacBook.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the friend had cut class and was uploading the recording to catch up with the lesson when he had a chance. As I saw that,  it dawned on me that today’s students had so much technology available to them that the entire campus life of a student would probably be very different than when I went to school. Back then, students had no PCs, cell phones, smartphones, IPods, IPads, and the list goes on. When you cut class you had to rely on the bad notes your friend made during class. Or worse yet, his or her bad penmanship.  It wasn’t worth the bother. We still did it but it really wasn’t worth it sometimes.

I started wondering how the technology departments on college campuses were coping with the technology the students were bringing in and trying to connect to their network.  Where years before the campus could probably control the devices coming in, it appeared as I looked around the cafeteria that the days of control were gone.  The students’ usage and comfort with technology were probably driving a lot of change in the way the school managed and dealt with technology.

My visits to the campus took on new meaning because I knew that whatever the students were using and doing with technology on campus would automatically follow them into the workplace when they found jobs.  I made it a point to talk at length to the technology folks at the school.  Whenever I’d bump into a technology person from other campuses at some local function, I’d talk to them. I was curious to learn about their challenges and the issues and problems they faced with such a highly tech savvy student body.   The answer was universal:  the students kept them on their toes.  Controlling the technology was also difficult because many of the students were so tech savvy that they knew how to get around rules. The answer many times was to work collaboratively with the student body or a committee made up of students to find a solution that worked for both sides.

As Millennials slowly entered the team, I understood what the campus technology groups had to face everyday.  Instead of creating an environment of friction, of  ”us vs. them”, I had some tried and true techniques that the university technology teams applied on campus and tweaked it to fit the corporate campus.   The fact that I was able to observe college students in their natural habitat helped me prepare for what was to come when they came to work.

As more Millennials enter the workplace, I think technology leaders would get a lot out of spending a day at a local campus or their kid’s campus. Walk around, go to the cafeteria, attend a class, enter the dorms.  Watch the technology and more importantly, watch how they use it.  It will open your eyes and hopefully open your mind to the future of work.  The students of today are not like those of yesteryear.  They are tech savvy and their expectations and usage of technology in the workplace are high and in today’s wired world, this should not be a surprise to anyone.  But strangely enough, it continues to be.

I have a solution to that, though.  In addition to having a “bring your child to work day”, why don’t we institute a “bring your CIO to school day”?    I guarantee it will be, well, er,  educational  …

I was reading the recent edition of CIO Insider when I came across Meridith Levinson’s article titled “10 Communication Mistakes CIOs Still Make“.  As I read it,  I realized that sadly, I still see CIOs committing those mistakes.  I have to admit that  fortunately, the number has decreased over the years which is really good.  This made me think of the list as it relates to Millennials.  Although the entire list is applicable, I think that when it comes to Millennials, the following 4 mistakes from the list are the most common I’ve seen and the hardest to overcome.  Here they are.  Drum roll, please…

Mistake #1:  They don’t seek buy-in.  Any good CIO knows that it’s always better to get their staff  (or customer) to buy-in to a particular solution or approach before moving forward.  The problem is that oftentimes CIOs will focus on getting buy-in from their direct reports and leave them with the task to obtain buy-in from the rest of the staff. That’s a lost opportunity for the CIO to make a connection with Millennials.  Millennials have a lot to offer but many times need to understand the gameplan.  Remember this is the group whose parents have been involved in every aspect of their lives and have taken the time to explain the “why” behind the decisions the family has made. They are ready to climb onboard but  it’s easier for them to do that understanding the “why”.  The extra level of effort the CIO takes to give them the “why”, to get their buy-in will go a long way.  Without it, there’s a disconnect.

Mistake #2:  Using scare tactics.  I am still amazed at the high number of executives (not just CIOs) that continue to employ fear as a management or communication tactic.  It’s never worked for any generation and all it does is create animosity.  Millennials are no different.  They are a highly collaborative group and are wired to seek action through concensus not fear.  Fear is a huge turnoff for them and they are more likely than other groups to display or vocalize their annoyance with that behavior.  It could just be that they are young and the younger you are, the more honest you are with people about your feelings. At any rate,  the bottom line is: lose the scare tactics and show you care instead.

Mistake #3:  Uncomfortable Asking Questions.    This is the most serious mistake of all in my opinion.  As the reporter points out in the article, many CIOs have trouble with this one. CIOs are constantly bombarded with questions from their bosses, their peers, the user community, the vendors, and every one else in between.  Because of this scrutiny, they feel like they have to be in control, have all the answers.  Well, in fact, I’ve learned over the years that the opposite approach works best. As an IT leader, when I didn’t know the answer, I said so. In fact, I learned that it was always better to ask questions than to appear to have all the answers.  What I found is that people appreciated my honesty and knew that I wasn’t trying to a fast one.  In asking questions I also gained a lot of insights I would otherwise not have. 

 The  same thing happens with Millennials.  I am always listening to CIOs complaining about Millennials.  They can’t seem to put their fingers on what makes Millennials so different so they just keep complaining.  I’ve written about my own experience early on with this same problem.  But instead of complaining further, I decided one day to simply start asking questions of the Millennials.  One question led to another and with time, I got to understand them and I had my “aha” insight which is that  Millennials are not as different as we think they are, they just apply things in new ways that are unfamiliar to us.   Ask the question.  They will love you for taking the time to ask.

Mistake #4: Heavy Reliance on Facts.    Ok so you have to attribute some of this mistake to the backgrounds of many CIOs.  Many of them have engineering, mathematics or computer science backgrounds.  The left brain is alive and thriving.  It makes sense that CIOs gravitate towards facts and figures.  It’s how many of them are wired.  The problem is that as we all know, leading people, especially Millennials, is not predicated on just facts.  The glue that binds people together is the connection.  It’s how you make them feel – as an employee, as their boss, as a member of your team. 

Millennials are BIG on the connection.  Again, this group has been raised by very attentive parents (remember you are probably also a parent,  raising your own Millennial at home) who have acted more as coaches and  mentors than parents. They seek that coaching relationship at work.  Frankly, who wouldn’t, regardless of what generation you come from.  As the article mentions, if you “capture their imagination”, if you connect with them on a personal level,  you have scored major points. They will not only be loyal but will sing your praises (virally) to whomever will listen.  Now that’s cool.

So now you know what NOT to do.  The question is: what will you DO to connect with your Millennial staff?

BTW: You might want to pass on the list to the other folks in the C-Suite.  Chances are they are making the same mistakes as well.

Recently, I purchased and downloaded a Kindle edition of Managing in a Time of Change by Peter Drucker. This book,  released in 2009 by the Harvad Business School Press,  is a a compilation of  many of Peter Drucker’s articles and interviews that focus on managing in a rapidly changing world.  I am a huge fan of Peter Drucker and believe him to be one of the great management thinkers of our time.  Although he died in 2005, his works continue to inspire and guide leaders and organizations on how to manage effectively during turbulent times.

In one of the interviews that was published, the author talks about how theories of business don’t last forever. He compares how in the past, these theories were able to last quite a while but that today, they can’t last very long.  He elaborated further and said that every theory of business goes from being powerful to obsolete and then invalid.  As this begins to happen to an organization, it typically reacts defensively at first pretending nothing is wrong.  After that, it begins to try to patch the existing theory to make it work.  He goes on to give examples of companies that have experienced those reactions and their eventual outcomes.

I was immediately captivated by Peter Drucker’s notion of patching an existing way of doing things as a way of holding on to something that was sadly not only becoming obsolete but invalid.  That got me thinking if that was what we, as leaders, are doing today as we lead a 21st Century worforce.

As a former IT executive the idea of patching automatically made me think of patch management. With patch management , we apply a piece of software to not only fix or update the various systems and software utilized within our organizations but it helps keep our systems secure from known vulnerabilities.  The whole process of patch management is a necessary and critical function within organizations and is always a win-win proposition.

But is it the same win-win when you apply the concept to leadership?  I know it isn’t.   As I struggled to understand Millennials and what leading in the 21st Century was going to be like, my first reaction was what Peter Drucker described.  I was in total denial.  I was convinced that this group was like others in the past and they had better learn to conform to what had worked for decades before.  As I began to talk to them and bring them into the team, I came face to face with Peter Drucker’s next reaction: patching.  I tried to make minor changes to how I had managed in the past. 

Let me give you an example.  One of the things I realized quickly after hiring Millennials was their need and desire to ask questions and have things explained to them.  Many years before, I had initiated a practice that I called office hours.  The concept behind office hours is that I would block one hour in my calendar every day and make myself totally available to my team for any questions, issues or personal development topics they wanted to talk to me about.  The practice became quite popular over time and we all found value in it.  But as it often happens, over the ensuing years, the team matured and many of the questions and topics were addressed and the practice of office hours slowly faded.

When Millennials started entering our team it occurred to me that office hours might be a way of managing their inquiries in an orderly fashion.  So I let everyone know that the practice of office hours was back and that I was open to them coming in and asking any questions they had.  After a few weeks, no one came into my office.  Not one. 

I was extremely puzzled and after a couple of months I was quite annoyed and upset that the Millennials had not accepted this great opportunity.  So I cancelled office hours.  Now here’s the shocking part.  Immediately after, I received emails and texts asking me not to do that.  Wondering why?  What I failed to notice is that in my desire to patch a practice I had used in the past, I had neglected to see a new reality.

You see, I was expecting the Millennials to do what previous groups had done which was to physically come to my office and talk with me in person.  Instead what I discovered in hindsight was that during the assigned time, I had been receiving an incredible amount of emails and texts from Millennials with lots of questions.  In looking back I realized that the emails and texts I had been receiving all throughout the day had now been condensed to the time I had allotted to office hours.   They had applied the concept of office hours in a totally different way that I would have never conceived.

Peter Drucker goes on to say that for theories of business to avoid becoming obsolete or invalid, companies need to build a monitoring system to always test its theories.  He believes that early diagnosis  leads to rethinking the theory and applying it in ways that are in line with the new realities of the company.

I couldn’t agree more.  As I patched my old way of leading, the Millennials were showing me that the idea was still a good one but the practice was stagnant and needed to be re-thought.  It added to other examples making me realize that although patch management was good for IT, it wasn’t good for IT leadership or leadership of any kind.

What about you?  Are you applying patch management techniques to your leadership style or are you re-thinking and embracing the new realities of leading in the 21st Century?

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