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. Photo by David Kidd.

I’ve done a few stupid things in my career. I’ve done a few things considered to be innovative, and I’ve certainly done my share of interesting things. But learning to let go and trust people is undoubtedly the smartest thing I’ve ever done as a CIO.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been a head technology guy for three different local governments, with each being larger and more complex than the last. Each time, I went in as the “new guy” rather than climbing through the ranks. Early on, my decision to let go and trust was in direct contrast with my instinct of survival, particularly in the early days of a new position. Naturally I wanted to develop some sufficient street cred in front of the troops so that they’d know I was “worthy” of the position. I learned to suppress those urges long ago because I realized that it was a key to successful leadership.

Some CIOs come from deep in a technology background; others have learned to lead an organization through more general business skills. (Somehow this English major slipped in the back door of the data center when no one was looking.) Regardless of our backgrounds, when we get to the executive leadership level in government, we can no longer stay deep in a single discipline, no matter how comfortable or confident we may be lurking at those depths. We’ve got to get wider and shallower. We must be able to cover more ground, do more stuff and do it more quickly than we’ve had to in the past. How do we do it? We trust.

This necessity to let go, coupled with the incredibly talented, dedicated and intelligent people I have had the pleasure of leading made this a relatively painless transition for me. As I write this, I am only two months into my new role as CIO of Wake County, N.C. Yet I already have seen my staff in action — innovating, communicating and just doing what needs to be done. Oftentimes I just green light their new ideas and get out of the way! It might not always get done exactly as I would have done it, but in a majority of the cases, it gets done well and often better than I imagined. Empowerment, delegating decision-making authority and providing opportunities for growth shows my team that I have confidence in their abilities and that I trust their judgment. This has made it much easier for me to earn their respect and loyalty. Sure, I have had some slackers and bad apples, but they can be isolated and managed individually without tainting the overall approach.

A CIO cannot do it all. At best, we’ll run a tight ship that goes nowhere. We’ll be a utility provider that our organization can depend on to provide dial tone, connectivity and PC repairs. At worst, we’ll burn out or become the bottleneck to the innovation we were hired to achieve. We’ve got to learn to let go.

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.

Terry Bledsoe | Investing in People

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