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CIOs Share Their Secrets for Success

If you could travel back in time, what career advice would you give yourself? We posed this question to current and former public CIOs. We asked them to write letters to their former selves, and this is what they had to say.

by Lea Deesing, Bill Schrier, Karen Robinson, Doug Robinson and Elaine Pittman / August 12, 2013

The following letters dispense advice — based on years of experience — about what’s really important to building success in one’s job and personal life.

These officials can’t travel back in time, but they can pass on hard-won lessons to their peers and, perhaps, inspire the next generation of government leaders.

Lea Deesing

Lea Deesing is chief innovation officer of Riverside, Calif., and the executive director of SmartRiverside, a nonprofit that aims to narrow the digital divide in her region by training at-risk youth to refurbish computers which are then offered at no cost to low-income families.

She holds a master’s in public administration from California State University, Dominguez Hills and a bachelor of science in information systems from the University of Redlands. Her professional experience includes 27 years in the IT field with 16 years specific to local government, and the remaining years in the software industry. Lea belongs to a number of professional organizations and advisory boards and has received national recognition for her articles on social media and other technology use within government.

Dear Lea,

Do you remember your childhood love of codes and ciphers? I recall how you cracked Scott Baio’s secret love code in Tiger Beat magazine when you were 10 years old. These types of hacking skills will propel you into a legitimate career in technology and innovation. Stay with it, even if the odds seem against you.

You must have courage when building your career in technology and innovation. Let’s face it: If you did not take a risk as a baby, you would still be eating mashed-up baby food. You must take calculated risks at every stage of your life in order to succeed. Your career is no exception.

Be brave enough to venture out and change jobs occasionally, no matter how uncomfortable that idea may seem. It will open up amazing new opportunities to you. You will find that it is always challenging to enter into a new organization, to fit into its culture and to learn new rules. However, your new employer will appreciate you and greatly benefit from the experiences, knowledge, ideas, best practices and lessons learned from all your past employers. Fearlessly move on to learn and share your knowledge.

Lea, this is important. During your job interviews, this is your time to shine. Be real; don’t be afraid to show your dynamic and passionate personality. Boldly demonstrate a profusion of energy when talking about your recent successes! You will either be loved and get the job, or your interviewer will instantly decide you are not a good fit. It’s better that this decision be based on your authentic self.

Once you land a leadership position, you need to clearly set expectations. That is, express what staff should expect from you and what you expect of them. Get to know each one of your team members and ask: “What are we doing right? How can we improve?” Truly innovative technology leaders are crowdsourcing creativity — they are focused on mentoring IT staff as “thought leaders” rather than holding them down as commodities. Listen for great ideas, implement ideas your staff share, give credit where credit is due and raise your staff’s visibility within the organization.

Take care to always look out for any organizational deficiencies, and courageously take the required actions and risks to fix them. Don’t be secretive about your team’s successes — become an active promoter of the great things your team is accomplishing.

Your father always told you to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and to be assured that kindness is not weakness. People have said: “You can get hired for your hard skills, but will get fired for your soft skills.” You need the basic hard skills to do your job, but more important, you must develop a sense of empathy combined with refined listening and team building skills.

Great leaders recognize the diversity of the human condition and work with it; allow your team members to express their ideas in a safe environment. This will help disrupt the mainstream way of thinking. Innovative leaders work to establish platforms to foster this kind of open, respectful culture — in this environment a team, an organization or a community will more likely reach its full potential.  

Your potential is endless. When you wake up each day, tell yourself, “I will be brave today.”

Bill Schrier

Bill Schrier is senior policy adviser in the Office of the CIO in Washington state.

He chairs the State Interoperability Executive Committee and serves as the primary contact for the FirstNet effort in the state.  

In the past, he served as the deputy director of the Center for Digital Government at e.Republic. He also retired in May 2012, after more than eight years serving as CTO of Seattle and director of the city’s Department of Information Technology. There he managed more than 200 employees and budgets of up to $59 million to support city government technology, and reported directly to Mayor Michael McGinn.  

Schrier was named one of Government Technology’s 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in 2008 and a Computerworld Premier 100 Leader for 2010. He blogs about the intersection of IT and government at Schrier is a retired officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and holds a master’s in public administration from the University of Washington.

Dear Bill,

I’m writing to give you some advice. Since you have a liberal arts education and a great respect for the classics, I’m using some of our college Latin in dispensing this counsel.

Pericula — quid adfers perdere racemum nisi superfluis capitale.  

“Take some risks — what do you have to lose except a bunch of unnecessary possessions?”

Don’t just search for job security. Trust yourself and your abilities. You can make dozens of excuses for looking for security — raising a family, buying a house, purchasing “stuff.” But in the end, a basic income with a lot of fun in the job and a good family life is more important. And for competent people like you, there are always many opportunities. This advice seems redundant in these heady days of the 21st century, with many tech startups and rapid movement between jobs, but wasn’t obvious in the ’70s and ’80s.

Quorum praevisionem testiculis eris eis.

“By their budget necks you will hold them.”

Learn finance and budgeting because money drives everything in business and personal life. This might seem contrary to the statement above, but it’s not. In business or government, understanding the budget means everything. Elected officials, department directors, police chiefs, water utility superintendents, etc., may not understand technology, but they all understand budgeting. If you can translate your plans and suggestions into dollars — especially return on investment — people listen. And in personal life, a bit of frugality will pay huge dividends; most of the stuff you buy you really don’t need.

Grapheocratiae omnes similes sunt.

“All bureaucracies are the same.”

People think governments are full of inscrutable bureaucrats who watch the clock waiting for 5 p.m. when they bolt for home. First of all, most governments are full of teachers, park workers, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers and others who improve our quality of life. You’ll find very few government “bureaucrats,” but many “dedicated public servants” who work more than 40 hours a week and are proud of their work for citizens. Finally, all large companies — private or public — are the same regarding bureaucracies, rules, regulations and slow processes. AT&T, IBM, Boeing and Microsoft are full of “bureaucrats” who are like those in government — mostly people really dedicated to their jobs, but sometimes hamstrung by policies and process.

Vestibulum libero pellentesque, cum quis mutare mundi, aut certe in urbe.

“With a bit of innovative technology, you can change the world, or at least your city.”

Take some risks. Build that open data site exposing data sets to the public. Get a Twitter account, and encourage everyone to tweet. Put some apps in the cloud. If they don’t work, you can always buy the software and implement on your own servers. Don’t ask permission; ask forgiveness — most of the time smart people will appreciate your work.

Comede bibe epulare, uti accumsan et cras et sequenti die ire ad laborandum tibi senescere.

“Eat, drink, be merry, enjoy your kids, for tomorrow you go back to work, and the next day you’ll grow old.”

Karen Robinson

Karen Robinson is CIO of Texas. Under her leadership, the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) manages the IT needs of more than 4,400 publicly funded entities, including the operation of the state’s IT security, communications technology services, cooperative contracts, data center services and the award-winning

The Texas native brings more than 35 years of government and private-sector experience to the post. Before joining the DIR, Robinson was Gov. Rick Perry’s director of administration and technology. She also served as technical adviser to former Gov. George W. Bush, as well as to the lieutenant governor’s office and Senate.

Dear Karen,

As you transition from juggling restaurant ownership, catering and fundraising responsibilities on the campaign trail to a full-time career in public-sector IT, always hold fast to your belief in tried-and-true values — hard work, respect, accountability, honesty and integrity. Yet never stop taking bold, positive steps forward and never stop learning along the way. Remain humble and maintain forward momentum at all times. After all, it often doesn’t take long for progress to unexpectedly grind to a halt.

Honesty is the most important core value of all. It’s critical to stay with your honest and true word. Don’t ever waver. Be confident and have conviction when you speak the truth, and speak it no matter what’s at stake. Unflinchingly abide by what your first boss at the Texas Capitol building told you: “Always tell the truth to a legislator, even if it’s painful.”

Never lie, because your credibility is at stake and, believe me, the truth will always prevail. This basic yet profoundly important lesson will serve you well throughout your career, particularly when you testify on committees and in your dealings with legislators, senators and house members.

Straightforward, honest communication is key, especially in professional networking. Never burn your bridges. Networking will remain an integral daily part of your career, so learn to do it well. Seek and nurture professional relationships. If you’re tactful, considerate and genuine, and if you practice forbearance, strained connections will repair and restore themselves in time. But you must be patient and do the hard work. Trust that the circle will again be complete.

As a leader, you can expect to face emotionally draining challenges. During difficult times, it’s crucial to remain calm while leaning heavily on a strong, positive mental attitude to carry you through.  

Chasing the elusive work-life balance might not be your strong suit, and that’s OK. Keeping both spheres completely separate works well for you now and will in the future.

If you gently, clearly communicate your always-on commitment to work early to your loved ones, know that they’ll understand, and together you’ll make the necessary adjustments. Everything will fall into place, at home and at work.  

Plan ahead and expect to be in high gear and always “on” for an entire six-month legislative session. Every year, from January until June, you will be essentially 100 percent committed to your job, early mornings, late nights, business dinners included and many of the moments in between.

On the other hand, when you vacation with your family, you must let yourself unplug. Consider vacation downtime as your prescription for refreshing, reconnecting and restoring, for gathering all of your strength for the next rigorous legislative session. There will never be a shortage of exhausting, yet rewarding work to be done.

Do carve time from your busy schedule to continually expand your education. Doing so will further prepare you for the many challenges that future technology knowledge-dependent positions will bring. As your IT career grows, so will your passion for learning and growing.

Finally, take time to celebrate all of the wins, big and small. Too often we focus on what didn’t turn out as we’d hoped. Instead, reflect often and fondly on what did. This is your chance to craft your legacy and shape the future.

Doug Robinson

Doug Robinson is executive director of NASCIO and the former CIO of Kentucky. NASCIO represents state CIOs and IT executives and advocates for IT at all levels of government.

Doug is a longstanding member of the executive council for IT management of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He is based in Lexington, Ky., but travels throughout the country often delivering keynote speeches and contributing to panels focused on emerging state IT priorities, trends and challenges, as well as key NASCIO policy issues. His career spans some 35 years in state government, higher education and public-sector IT consulting.

Dear Doug,

Hold fast to your insatiable curiosity and fondness for research. These attributes will remain strong in the years to come and will serve you well throughout your career. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Prestige and position can only take you so far; at the end of the day you earn the respect of your professional peers not by your title but by your determination, perseverance and simply by getting the job done. You will get knocked down a few pegs in your career from time to time, so remain humble and always learn from your mistakes.

Always take the time to carefully listen to your colleagues. You’ll glean more knowledge and insight by talking less and listening more, even when it’s challenging to do so. Also, seek out and rely upon the advice of mentors and successful figures whom you respect and trust within your professional sphere. The answers you seek aren’t always in the research data alone. They also often lie within people. Hire good people for your team, and give them opportunities to grow.

Be careful to manage your relationships horizontally — on a well connected, meaningful level — with all of the various private and public-sector groups and individuals you interact with professionally. Developing the right relationships when collaborating with others is infinitely more important than what you know about technology. In your early career, you will log countless hours discussing the hard side of technology in exhaustive detail, but what you should focus much more on, especially in preparation for working so closely with state CIOs, politicians and officials in the decades to come, is developing more of the human, soft skills side of your career relationships.

Forging the right connections and deeply engaging in the right conversations — often with the right people at the right moment — will play a much bigger role in your future success than merely talking about what you know about boxes, wires and networks. It’s not always about IT, especially when you’re trying to influence entire state agencies and organizations to move in a certain direction around specific agendas or to adopt new technologies. You’ll get far more accomplished with public officials when you’re open and authentic in your dealings with them, so tell the truth, even when it’s not what people want to hear. Always give them the straight scoop. Many of the individuals you work with won’t understand all of the technical ins and outs of IT, even if they generally find technology interesting, so do your best to find a champion in the legislature, someone who is genuinely a proponent of tech innovation and early adoption.

Expect surprises. You’ll hear this time and again from managers and bosses throughout your career, and for good reason. Always be prepared for bumps in the road, no matter what you’re working on. In your future position at NASCIO, particularly with the average CIO tenure being about only 24 months, you’ll be faced with unexpected challenges on a regular basis and you’ll have to stand strong and be ready. To cope and truly respond appropriately and effectively, you’ll have to remain flexible and be very adaptable to a wide range of sudden changes of course.

Accordingly, don’t just prepare plan A and plan B. Always have a plan C ready to go, not only when it comes to projects, but also while organizing and hosting conferences. Unlike IT projects, conferences can’t go over budget and you can’t get a two-week extension for them. Deadlines for software code can be changed. Conference dates can’t.

In dealing with leadership, state governments and with NASCIO members in the future, you mustn’t get flustered by unforeseen changes in moments of crisis, whether you’re dealing with a data center failure, a natural disaster or the unexpected resignation or firing of a state CIO. You must possess an unflagging inner reserve of strength, wisdom and conviction to persevere in all circumstances. Change your course of action for the better when the time comes, because it will and often. In the end, success is earned by those who are honest, adaptable and ready for anything.

Kristin Russell’s 5 Cs to Success  

For years, when Kristin Russell was asked to share the secret to her success, she couldn’t quite put her finger on the answer. ”I didn’t really feel that there was something truly outstanding, unique or special about what I did to get where I am today,” said Russell, the secretary of technology and CIO of Colorado and former executive for Oracle and Sun Microsystems. But after reflecting on her ”secret sauce” to success, Russell identified five Cs that she wished someone would have told her when she started her career.

Curiosity — Have an open mind and look for opportunities to constantly learn. “There have really only been two reasons why I have taken the different jobs I have had in my career; one was to add value and the second was to learn,” Russell said. In addition to pushing yourself into uncharted territory, curiosity involves asking questions (i.e., the dumb or obvious question as well as ”what if?” and ”is there a better way?”), which help open up the conversation and get back to basics from a strategic standpoint.

Courage — Dare to make mistakes. Russell tells her team to fail fast and fail often; she doesn’t want the fear of failure to prevent people from taking bold, innovative steps that can transform themselves and their organization. ”Sometimes when we succeed, we almost feel like it was luck-based or situation-based, but when we fail, we tend to learn more and take those nuggets of understanding forward.” Russell added that courage also means not shying away from making difficult decisions and having tough conversations. Practicing this at an early age will help you throughout your career.

Character — Serve with integrity and always strive to do the right thing. Ask yourself: Would I still do this if it ended up on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper? ”I think it’s a good little test for us to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Russell said. Character also includes the concept of authenticity and being your true self — being self-aware and knowing your strengths and weaknesses so that you can fill in gaps with staff members, your peers and others around you. Finally, follow through with what you say you’re going to do. ”It was shocking to me in my career how many people don’t actually do this, and how it really erodes and breaks down a fundamental component that I think is important for any relationship, which is trust.”

Care — Care about others and help them succeed. Russell helps others achieve their goals and believes in the concept of pay it forward (it did, after all, play a part in her being appointed Colorado’s secretary of technology and CIO). For years she attended meetings, mentored others and volunteered in the community, at the time not seeing the personal benefit but intrinsically feeling that those good deeds would be repaid. While at Sun and Oracle, Russell served on the Colorado Technology Association’s board and also helped and volunteered with that community — and that community later put her name forward for the state’s top IT role. ”Because I cared about them and cared about others without asking for something in return, it came back to me,” she said. In addition, as you move into leadership positions, instead of recognition being focused on the individual, there’s a tipping point when success of the team becomes more important. ”That would be a key thing that I would have told myself early on — understanding that collaboration, partnership and helping teammates is so critical and will become increasingly important as you move up through your career.”

Charisma — Don’t underestimate your ability to lead or inspire others, regardless of your position. This includes showing confidence even if you have self-doubt. ”Give energy, perseverance and most important, tenacity to those things that are most important to you,” Russell said.

— Elaine Pittman, Associate Editor

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