We’ve all heard it the stereotypes about young leaders. They tend be more “more energetic and innovative” than their older counterparts, but are lacking in “management skills and balanced judgment” (Inc.com). And get its worse: they “know they are not ready for leadership, but want it anyway” (Forbes). With these types of perceptions floating around, it can be a lot for a young CIO to overcome. But what we found in interviewing four CIOs is that overcoming obstacles (and disproving assumptions) is all part of the job. In this interview, we spoke with Bryan Bliven, David Chou, Joey Hobbs, and Anna Turman about the challenges they faced when assuming the CIO role; the strategies they used to establish themselves as leaders; what characteristics are necessary in younger leaders; and what they’ve learned from their older counterparts. They also reveal the tough conversations they’ve had to initiate, the importance of work-life balance, and how the CIO role is evolving.
- The onboarding learning curve — “They expect you to come in and figure things out.”
- Huddles, town halls & one-on-ones
- “It’s tough deciding how transparent you’re going to be.”
- Making IT a social media department
- Open-door empowerment policy
- Learning from mentors — “Take risks, but make the mistake only once.”
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When you’re walking into a highly matrixed organization, they actually expect you to come in and figure things out. You don’t get an orientation.
There are things that you’d like to be able to tell some of these key members on your team, and at times it’s tough to know when and what to share and not to blur those lines.
We constantly try to change that up because I think that’s one of the things where we haven’t found a perfect way to do it, so we keep trying different things to get the communication out there and make sure we’re all on the same page.
One of the things I strive to do upon joining any organization, and I’ve continued to do so within the current organization, is really understanding and just being that helper and providing assistance, if needed, anywhere and anytime.
I think any good manager or great manager should absolutely have a succession plan, and should absolutely be mentoring on a constant basis, empowering them and making sure that there’s someone who can step in.
Gamble: When you talk about rounding and asking questions, when you haven’t spent as much time in the organization — Anna and Joey are in a unique spot there. But for you, David, how was that something you dealt with coming in? Did you have a formal rounding process? How did you deal with that?
Chou: No. When you’re walking into a highly matrixed organization, they actually expect you to come in and figure things out. You don’t get an orientation. You pretty much had to build relationships and to figure things out on your own. My first three to six months were pretty much getting to know the organization. We’re over 10,000 employees, so in terms of leadership, we have lots of layers. Spending time to understand that was critical and that was pretty much what you had to do as part of that onboarding learning curve personally.
Gamble: What about for you, Bryan? I know you were interim CIO and were with your organization before then, but was rounding something that you did at that point?
Bliven: When I came into the organization, I had spent time on the vendor side prior to that, so it was an opportunity for me to really get into the units, departments, and clinics, and I was just really excited to do that. And I had some great contacts here that also encouraged that and aligned me with people. Looking back, I think that was really key being able to find out who were some first inroads to make and places to get into and learn from. But it was not a formal process. Looking at where we’re at right now, we do have a formal rounding process where we get people out and try to make those relationships, not just for myself but for a lot of folks in the technology organization, and really, as an organization, for our leaders.
Gamble: One of the other big things for any leader is having strong communication skills. But as far as how you communicate with your team, I feel like that’s something that can be shaped by your age or experience level, but then also the organization itself and how it’s structured. So Joey, if you want to start, can you talk about your strategies just as far as communication with your team and if that’s something you do in a structured way — how do you go about that?
Hobbs: We have a few different ways we try to communicate, whether it’s through meetings or things coming up. We’re a department of around 19. So we’re all housed — with the exception of one person who works from home — mostly in the same area physically. So that helps with communication methods when your offices are close. We have functionality throughout the hospital where we use pillar boards to communicate different pieces like financials and things like that.
And then something our organization does — not just our IT department, is host quarterly people-to-people meetings where our CEO, CFO, and different senior leaders will host, over the course of two days, an hour-long meeting of what’s going on in our organization and where we’re going, whether it’s projects or what we’re doing around HCAHPS, how we’re doing financially, and those kind of things. And we get really good attendance and feedback from the openness that we share with our employees.
We’ve found over time that we’ve continued to do better about structuring goals and things like that where organizationally, we build our goals and we share those results on a quarterly basis. Since we started doing that with our new CEO in place the last two years, our results have been really good on the outcome. So I think that that helps lead to it. And we have, just like I’m sure all the other people here on the phone, leadership meetings on a weekly basis for our senior leader team.
It’s tough deciding how transparent you’re going to be on what you share, because there are sensitive things you can’t share as you’re going through, and sometimes you really want to. There are things that you’d like to be able to tell some of these key members on your team, and at times it’s tough to know when and what to share and not to blur those lines.
Bliven: From an IT department point of view, I try to communicate, as I’m sure everyone else does, as much as I can. I have a blog where I do blog posts every once in a while and I send email blasts out to the entire department. We do quarterly town halls as a department and weekly leadership meetings where we try to structure the feedbacks so that the leaders also cross-learn. We try complete weekly 5/15’s — they take 5 minutes to read and 15 minutes to create, just for an update from each of our area or sub-department or initiatives that we share across the organization. We constantly try to change that up because I think that’s one of the things where we haven’t found a perfect way to do it, so we keep trying different things to get the communication out there and make sure we’re all on the same page in matching up to the missions of the organization.
Chou: Just like everyone else, we have quarterly town halls, which are a good way to just get all the employees together. We also have regular newsletter that go out campus-wide so that we communicate throughout the campus. Most importantly, I’m really trying to, at minimum, make what I control within my department a social department, because after all, it’s tough for me to talk to all 400 employees. So I try to be very active and get them engaged through social media, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. We’re also using internally Yammer as a collaboration tool throughout the organization.
And it is growing. The technology department is the largest user of Yammer. I think we are starting to see some of the other departments getting more engaged with these discussions. These are various avenues to communicate. I’m trying to use all of the different technology that we have out there that people are willing to use just to have open dialogues.
Turman: Being smaller, our governance is not tremendously complicated. Communication becomes a little bit easier. I think that’s a blessing, of our many curses of being small, and the big one is open door policy. We have meetings much the same as the others that have been speaking. But I think one of the big things in my open-door policy is, I don’t allow coming in and complaining, but I empower them to bring me ideas and solutions, and we have those discussions.
It’s really important to listen and empower them. I have a great relationship as a CIO with the COO. There are a lot of healthy disagreements going on in there, even though I’m the same person. But I do also have a great relationship with the C-suite in general. Their offices are right next to me and they all have the same open door policy and empowerment policy.
Gamble: One of the other things that I wanted to talk about is mentors. David, you briefly mentioned a mentor, and I just wanted to talk about what are some of the most important things you learned from having mentors over the years and what’s something that’s really stuck with you. Do you want to start, David?
Chou: I would say building relationships is probably one of the key things that my mentor taught me. It’s not really about who’s right or wrong in terms of a solution, but really building that relationship to be able to get these things done a lot easier. I think one of the things I strive to do upon joining any organization, and I’ve continued to do so within the current organization, is really understanding and just being that helper and providing assistance, if needed, anywhere and anytime. Those are sort of the key takeaways as far as being a true collaborative leader in an organization. I think that should be a main focus for any future leaders coming up through the ranks.
Hobbs: I would go along those lines as well. I think if you look back over the course of your life, I have a lot of people that have shaped me — obviously my parents. And when I started here at the hospital and worked in the storeroom, I had one of the greatest bosses ever on showing what it really means with customer service and doing whatever it takes. He was a gentleman who never said no. We were in the storeroom, so we were service department. I learned so much from what he brought to work every day and dropping whatever it took to make things work. And while that doesn’t always work in IT because we can’t solve everything and say yes to everything, it was a great experience learning customer service on a different level and what it takes to run a hospital from the ground up.
Turman: I’ve had many mentors, some really strong ones, and I think they’ve helped mold me in many ways, and there are some key things that I’ve heard from a couple of them. The big one is just make the mistake only once. You need to take those risks, but make the mistake only once, and those are important. And I think the more you communicate and the more you build your relationships, those mistakes can sometimes be a little bit smaller and have a softer cushion to land on.
Bliven: I would just add that I’ve had many mentors as well. But I also have the luxury of having my predecessor as a mentor and just being able to have a sounding board, knowing a lot of the organization and being able to bounce ideas off of. That and the other leaders here in the C-suite, just a great ability to bounce ideas off of folks here and have their perspective on it and guidance. A lot of it is more about the leadership in general than it is specific with approaching technology. So I do feel very lucky with the folks that I’ve been able to work with, past and present, to get some guidance in that area.
Gamble: Do any of you do any mentoring yourselves or hope to do that eventually?
Turman: I think any good manager or great manager should absolutely have a succession plan, and should absolutely be mentoring on a constant basis, empowering them and making sure that there’s someone who can step in. If I get hit by bus, it would be a real problem. There needs to be someone who can slide right in while I’m in the hospital.
Chou: I agree completely. I think as leaders you really have to try to groom your successor. But at the same time, even staff or even other folks who are around you, just providing guidance as far as best practices, what we have learned, and just sharing the mistakes and the things that have helped us get to where we are. I would call them core requirements for any leader.