Editor's note: In this series, Public CIO set forth to find answers from several of the nation’s top CIOs who have served or currently are in state, local and federal positions. These firsthand accounts are about how establishing partnerships, trusting and letting go, investing in people, and assessing situations have all been instrumental to smart decision-making. 

Being an IT leader is like being peanut butter sandwiched between two slices of bread — you’ve got your customers and resources and you must leave a good taste all around. It’s not only about the technology, but also even more about the people. Here are just two examples.

In the first case, the leadership team was co-located in offices on a single floor. While this was great for cohesiveness among the various leaders of the organization, it was distancing in terms of the staff. Even regular meetings or coffee with them meant a trip within the building. Subsequently when they were renovating our office building, I was temporarily located next to the IT team work area and found that everything changed. People poked their heads in, communication was more natural, meetings were impromptu as events occurred “on the ground,” and the team came to see me more for what I am — a problem solver with them — rather than a figurehead on a pedestal. As the renovation came to a close, I decided to stay with the IT team, and continue to work closely with the staff members and be a part of their day-to-day functioning and ultimately the long-term IT solutions for the organization.

The funny thing is that from a business perspective, this team cohesion was also more effective for our customers. I was able to meet with them, understand their business needs, integrate these with the organization as a whole, prioritize them, decide on resourcing, and lead the IT solutions with closer, real-time knowledge of what was going on in the trenches. I learned more about who my people (and their families) were, their real strengths and weaknesses, their concerns and how we could solve them together for the customer. The business owners saw a deeply cohesive and hardworking team that was taking care of them, the customer and their work requirements better and faster.

In this vein, I instituted regular system user groups that met with our business counterparts, not just when we needed them for requirements or testing, but ongoing to communicate, collaborate, innovate, project plan, make recommendations and resolve issues. When I set up the first meetings on a monthly basis, I was astounded that the users decided after the first meeting that they wanted to meet again the very same week — actually two days later.

The two examples of developing greater human cohesion with my team and with our user community are really the same. It is about being there to listen, ask questions, understand, emphasize and work through challenges together. You cannot do this to greatest effect from an “ivory tower” of CIO — chief in outer space.

Years earlier, I remember learning the difference between a general who commands his troops from the rear (he is personally afraid and disconnected and sends his troops ahead of him), and one who leads from in front as both an example of what’s expected and ready and willing to roll up his sleeves and fight with the team to get results. There is a huge difference in the perception of such a leader and in the reality of what such a leader can achieve at the “tip of the spear” of a strong and dedicated team.

 More stories in the Smartest Thing series:

 

 Jerry Fralick | Assess and Strategize

 
Fralick is the former CIO of North Carolina -- and current CIO of the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice, and deputy CIO for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

 Vicki Irey | Get Out There!

Irey is the CIO of Overland Park, Kan.

 Gail M. Roper | Expanding my Role

 Roper is the CIO of Raleigh, N.C.

Bill Greeves | Trusting and Letting Go

Greeves is the CIO of Wake County, N.C.

 

Terry Bledsoe | Investing in People

Bledsoe is the CIO of North Carolina's Catawba County.

 

Andy Blumenthal  |  Contributing Writer

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. State Department. He was previously chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at User-Centric Enterprise Architecture and The Total CIO. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his agency.