I recently had the opportunity to talk with six outstanding CIOs who epitomize the phrase “leader as teacher.” I wanted to find out more about why they view teaching as a critical responsibility of leadership, what it means in practice, and how they maintain a teaching mindset and make it a priority in their very busy schedules. This prestigious group included:
I featured key lessons and takeaways from these leaders in my CIO Whisperers column at CIO.com, but as you can imagine, when you’re picking the brains of some of the top IT executives around, you’re going to end up with more valuable insights and advice than you can fit into one column.
Below are some additional nuggets that you will want to read and share with anyone who shares your commitment to elevating their leadership game. Be sure to check out the CIO.com column as well for more context about the need to for “leader-teachers” in IT today.
What does being a “Leader as Teacher” mean to you? How do you define it?
“None of us knows it all. Therefore, to teach others you must be a nonstop student yourself.” – Dani Brown
Dani Brown: To be a leader as teacher, you must be bold, take some risks and create a learning environment. So it can be a win-win, for the company and for the employee. I also believe that as a leader, you have a responsibility to not only develop others but yourself as well. None of us knows it all. Therefore, to teach others you must be a nonstop student yourself.
This boils down to a Learn-Do-Teach mindset:
This philosophy was shared with me early in my career by a prior boss and mentor, former DuPont CIO Phuong Tram, and I continue to practice it to this day.
Bill Fortwangler: To be a leader as teacher, present your actions and verbal and written statements in a way that people can use as examples. Make them want to replicate the way that you behave or handle situations. I use real situations that I have experienced and pass them along as a way to prepare for that scenario or situation, including pointing out what I did that was appropriate or what would I have done differently. Reality is the key to this. Real life situations are almost always more beneficial to learning.
Sue Kozik: Curiously, teaching was my early career plan, with both parents having taught school and having always placed a high value on education. So for me, helping others grow and develop is part of my DNA. The benefits of “teaching” and leading others is the satisfaction of seeing my team take on new responsibilities and step up to the challenges of enabling our healthcare business to interoperate seamlessly because of how we have architected effective and efficient technology solutions.
Teena Piccione: As a leader I must be a teacher. I must teach negotiation skills, loyalty, and optimization of time and process. Teams need to see their leader as a constant learner willing to step in and teach them how to think differently, seek understanding of others, and serve others well.
These kinds of soft skills are often taught in the hallways of buildings, where employees can learn how to take a step back and listen, and how to know when to push forward and when to pause, reflect, and change course. These are the teachable leader traits that must be taught so that other can successfully lead.
Ken Piddington: I look at being a leader as not just about providing the necessary guidance for today but also providing the learning opportunities that they will need to succeed tomorrow. I try to teach by sharing experiences and examples of both my successes and failures, and by helping them figure it out for themselves with guidance through questions.
Could you share some anecdotes or examples of when you’ve been a “Leader as Teacher”?
Bill Fortwangler: Most of the situations I find myself teaching are related to dealing with influencing the organization. This may be due to political or financial or strategic variables that the person I am teaching is not fully aware of, or they are not fully aware of the impact these variables have on what they are trying to influence.
Many associates think that their agenda is a slam dunk and that it’s very obvious how their agenda will have a positive impact on the organization. When you throw conflicting agendas or financial constraints or company politics into the mix, they aren’t prepared to make their argument. I have literally told people that I am showing them how this will work and how they think it should work. I run through multiple scenarios of what the stakeholders will ask and prepare data for those questions.
I usually overprepare, and they have found this to be a “lesson” in what to do to make sure you’re more likely to get a positive outcome from a meeting. Hours of prep time for a 30-minute meeting will begin to sink in as a way to be well rehearsed.
Claus Jensen: The very first time I held a townhall after having arrived at MSK, I asked my team for two things: I asked them to go with me on a learning journey, and I asked them as part of that journey to be willing to jump into the breach and “do battle” based on a vision rather than a specific defined destination.
Over the last nine months I have told the story of how this is a pivotal moment in the world of cancer and how we have the opportunity to define a new model that meets the needs of the whole human. I like to think that I have helped not just my own team but all of MSK learn to understand and appreciate what that opportunity is and how to pursue it. And, as an aside, in my last three executive jobs I have chosen to sponsor numerous learning activities as one of the most important investments to drive digital transformation.
Sue Kozik: Much of the work with do in IT is consultative: We provide analysis, advice, and solutions. I believe it is important to use every interaction as a moment to influence and educate.
As an example, during the rush to work from home during the pandemic, we could have simply equipped all employees with their current workstation and sent them home. That was the expectation. We were in the midst of rolling out Microsoft Teams in early 2020. We hadn’t finished all our testing, but we made the decision to use this crisis to enable all of our 2500 employees with not only access to their current tools to do their jobs but also a new way to collaborate. And while there were a few bumps along the way, we got rave reviews for using what we knew to anticipate some of the challenges our co-workers faced.
Was it risky to roll out a tool that wasn’t quite ready? Sure, but the upside of providing these new capabilities has allowed our organization to continue to be productive and deliver on our commitments to our community without disruption.
Teena Piccione: I remember one time I had a brilliant solution for speed of delivery, I had two different teams coding different parts of a solution to bring together. However, I learned one week prior to the delivery to the client that they coded in different languages that were not compatible.
I had to take a step back, and instead of yelling or punishing, I asked one team to design a solution so that this never would happen again and then open source the solution. I asked the other team to finish the coding. I then took the long walk to the client to buy more time. In that moment, I could have acted differently, but I had to lead and teach that when things go wrong, there is a solution, and you must keep searching to find it. It always inspires loyalty.
Another example in teaching is in serving. I serve. If I continuously keep a mindset of “how can I help,” then I am able to serve my teams and customers well.
One other example of teachable leadership is showing others that you are willing to listen and learn from others. I support teams worldwide, which can be challenging due to low-bandwidth issues and technology challenges. I have to be willing to listen to their problems and then determine a solution. However, if I make the decision in a vacuum without the input of the business and others, I might not be making the best decision. By teaching my leaders the importance of seeking understanding and listening to the problem, we ultimately can determine the best solution.
“I asked them to put themselves in the shoes of the audience they were presenting to and ask the question, ‘How do these metrics matter to my business unit?’ I challenged them to go back and craft a story that demonstrated the value being provided and not just say ‘We had five 9s of availability.’” – Ken Piddington
Ken Piddington: One really good story was when I believed there was an opportunity to take an internally developed IT solution to market. The idea was right, and the solution was good, but it wasn’t ready yet to compete in the market.
Of course, my team thought they had built the best solution ever. They weren’t wrong, but it needed some work for it to become a marketable product. I couldn’t just tell them what needed to be done or they would have gotten defensive. I needed them to figure it out on their own.
I decided to guide them through a product strategy and marketing exercise for a solution we owned and utilized daily. After completing the exercise for a known product on the market, I asked them to do the same exercise on their own for our product. A week or two later, the team showed me what they had come up with, and they had identified the gaps and the work necessary for our product to go to market. I provided the guidance with the exercise, giving them the tools they needed to come up with the correct answers.
Another good example was about communicating the value of the various solutions, services, and infrastructure we provide to the company. I was given a draft of a presentation my leadership wanted to present to the multiple business unit presidents. The goal of the presentation was to demonstrate all the ways IT was providing value to the different business units to get some additional funding.
The presentation was loaded with lots and lots of metrics, except none of them told a story that would be meaningful to what was important to the audience. Instead of saying “this won’t work,” I asked them to put themselves in the shoes of the audience they were presenting to and ask the question, “How do these metrics matter to my business unit?” I challenged them to go back and craft a story that demonstrated the value being provided and not just say “We had five 9s of availability.”
I also shared a story of my own failure and learning when I had made a mistake trying to use some metrics for a presentation with my CEO at a previous company — metrics that, in his mind, did not accurately reflect our business. Here I taught through asking questions and sharing a story of failure and the lessons learned from it.
What do you think are some of the everyday situations where CIOs have an opportunity to teach “on the fly”? How do you maintain that teaching mindset and be intentional about it?
Dani Brown: The intentionality comes by giving them room to grow and room to make mistakes. This includes providing the right opportunities/experiences; the right support (e.g., tools, training, mentors, etc.); and the room to make mistakes. You cannot ask people to step out on a limb and stretch themselves and then penalize them when they don’t knock it out of the park every single time.
Bill Fortwangler: It’s knowing when to sit back and let a situation take a shape based on you “sitting this one out” for a given period of time. Will your mentee step up and let the problem take on a shape of theirs, or will it start to fail?
If it starts to fail, it may be time to step in, and, hopefully, it won’t be too late to correct the direction. The mentee will have experienced a situation that they will not forget. I sometimes then tell people why I let a certain situation get to a point of intervention.
“If it starts to fail, it may be time to step in, and, hopefully, it won’t be too late to correct the direction. The mentee will have experienced a situation that they will not forget.” – Bill Fortwangler
Claus Jensen: It really starts with always having people at the top of your mind. If you look at a problem from the perspective of people, you quickly realize that if you have good teams, you don’t need to help them deliver the outcome; you simply need to teach them what the desired outcome is in the first place.
Always making sure that we are clear on what good looks like is perhaps the simplest way of making sure we continue to learn and evolve — simply because as the art of the possible evolves, so does the very definition of “good.”
Teena Piccione: Every day we are given opportunities to teach our teams verses dictating what they should do. But to do so we must be curious learners that are passionate about understanding what will make a difference.
Ken Piddington: For me it comes naturally because of who I am as a person and as a leader. I believe in Servant Leadership, and as such, I put the needs of my people first and help develop them to perform as highly as possible.
I have also been lucky enough to have had some great mentors and coaches throughout my life and career. I learned a lot from them and feel I have a responsibility to give back in similar ways. It is like the line in the Tim McGraw song “Humble and Kind” that says, “When you get where you’re going, don’t forget turn back around and help the next one in line.”
Sue Kozik: I learned a long time ago that my role is to enable people much smarter than me to help my organization.
How is being a teacher helping you elevate IT in the business?
Sue Kozik: There is so much more that technology can do to help our organization, but in order to do that well, we also have to have a deep understanding of the business. And as technology leaders, it is also our responsibility to distill the complexity of technology into business terms so that the business leaders can also understand the “art of the possible” with technology. It is only when we come together, that the magic happens and the solutions we develop have the intended impact.
So, being a leader in IT today is part marriage broker, ambassador, coach, juggler, and teacher. I’ve always believed that my ability to “influence without authority” is the most important competency I bring to the table. Using your position power might bring compliance, but not the culture of partnership or learning that we aspire to.
“There is so much more that technology can do to help our organization, but in order to do that well, we also have to have a deep understanding of the business.” – Sue Kozik
Ken Piddington: I remember sitting in a team meeting where the technology team was going to push a new solution to the business. I asked who they had worked with in the business. The comment was, they just need this tool. The answer never had a name. My response could have been to agree, but instead I had a teachable moment. I asked the tech team to go back and work with the business, partner with them so that they understood the benefits of the technology and were partners together in the solution.
Technology may be the solution, but if you do not take the time with the business and seek understanding of others and partner to put together solutions that matter, the technology solution will fail every time. The technology was still the right answer, but the approach made the solution possible, accepted, utilized and effortless.
Another example is when a technology team patches servers. No one typically cares in the business until you take down their systems that they are relying on. In the past, my team never communicated well or partnered with the business. I set up a meeting with my technology team and the business to facilitate a strategy on how to set up a beneficial schedule that everyone could agree with.
Was this in my job description? No, but it was teaching my team how to negotiate. This took time, patience, and education on both sides. However, the result was a well-thought-out plan that minimized impact to the business and still kept the servers patched and secure.
What do you gain from being a teacher? How does your organization benefit?
Dani Brown: We recently kicked off a development series for IT Leaders. When I spoke to the group, I shared my philosophy, that as a leader, one of the most important things they will do is develop leaders. It’s not the projects, the systems or the technology that they implement. In fact, there is technology today that I’m sure someone in the session has put in that we are now replacing. So that goes to show that the “things” are not enduring.
However, what is enduring is the development that you provide to others. It’s enduring because they will remember someone “pouring into them” and they in turn will then “pour into others.” That is enduring, and that is why seeing others develop is one of the joys of my job.
Bill Fortwangler: Selfishly, it will make my role easier if I can delegate more and feel confident that the delegation will be handled properly. The organization will build depth and people will be able to fill in more roles and gaps when people are over-allocated or they decide to move on to other adventures. We will also to be able to look at things with similar perspectives. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes from passing on experiences and relevant important information that will help others make informed decisions.
Claus Jensen: A personal sense of accomplishment. I love teaching and I have ever since I was as assistant lecturer back at college. Stepping into a teaching role is a major amplifier. It is more important for me to help my team become as good as they can be than it is for me to help them solve a particular problem. Only by continuing to learn and grow can a team continue to be at its best. That is the power of teaching.
Sue Kozik: Seeing my team grow and the organization succeed with the help of our contributions is the reason I do what I do. It is rewarding to see the knitting together of various skills and experiences towards a bigger purpose.
When my nieces were ages 5-7, they asked what I do. This was well before the age of smartphones and iPads, so technology was not something they understood. I always remembered how I tried to “teach” them with my response. (My husband jokingly said, “She goes to meetings all day!”)
I responded that my job is to put puzzles together. I still think that is true. The puzzles are complicated — they involve people, business processes, policies and regulations, legacy technology, multiple and sometimes conflicting stakeholders, deadlines. For me, that is the challenge!
“We are all have the same 86,400 seconds a day but how we utilize our time will make a difference to our teams and the next generation.” – Teena Piccione
Teena Piccione: My company benefits from my teaching by learning, understanding, and increasing our market share through trying new ideas and pushing to for excellence. A company can sit back and rest on their success or continuously push to develop the next solutions that will rock the marketplace. This requires continuous teaching as to why things must be done and then negotiating how to get them done. It will increase staff loyalty, increase Net Promoter Scores, and ensure optimization of the teams.
I am a curious and constant learner, and I firmly believe that we are only bound by our imagination. I learn in order to teach. Technology changes constantly and I need to ensure I am educated and teaching my staff and the executive board in order to stay relevant in the market.
CIOs and technologists must become teachers, marketers, and solution providers. Executives have the fiduciary responsibility to teach the next generation, through one-on-one mentoring. We must also have diverse thought leadership, and in order to that, you must put diversity of gender and race in the room to make better rounded decisions. If I am teaching high schoolers and college students how to work, how to react, then I am serving the generation to ensure they understand what it means to lead. I have my interns at executive meetings so they can learn what happens, why, and how to respond.
We are all have the same 86,400 seconds a day but how we utilize our time will make a difference to our teams and the next generation. We must commit to passionately inspiring others on a daily basis and intentionally start the day by asking: How can I help? I live by GRIT – grace, resilience, inspiring others to innovate, and tenacity to get the job done well.
Ken Piddington: I gain the satisfaction of knowing I helped someone in some way, large or small, be that much better at what they do. I enjoy seeing people I’ve had the opportunity to provide some leadership guidance and teaching expand their capabilities, grow into a better leader themselves, and advance in their careers. Additionally, by being able to teach and build other great leaders, my teams become stronger and our company is better for it.
Hear more from these great IT leaders here.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.