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What are the Keys to Effective Leadership?

Five highly regarded government CIOs share their secrets to becoming trailblazers in government IT.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good [people] to do what [he or she] wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

Some of the most highly respected CIOs in government agree. Giving staff the leeway to do their jobs and listening to what they have to say were the traits most often cited by the five IT leaders we interviewed. Each of these CIOs has a reputation for being a strong, successful leader in his or her organization. Read on to find out what other keys these CIOs have found to becoming trailblazers in government IT.

Richard McKinney CIO, U.S. Department of Transportation

Richard McKinney is the former Nashville CIO. Prior to that, he led IT services for the Tennessee General Assembly. McKinney has been CIO for the U.S. Department of Transportation since 2013.

Leadership implies authority, but I’ve always found that, in the long run, leadership that is effective comes from legitimacy. In other words, you have to deliver to your customers, to the team you lead, to the businesses you interface with. The authority that allows you to be an effective leader is the authority that people give you based on your legitimacy. People don’t want to follow someone that they don’t think has their interests at mind, whether they are your direct reports or your customers.

Keys to Leadership

1 / Be a good listener

2 / Share your victories as well as your defeats

3 / Know your team

I try to be a good listener. I try to put myself in the shoes of whomever I’m talking to, whether it’s someone that works for me or a customer across the table from me. I spend a lot of effort to try to see things the way they see them, and then have them get a sense that I am paying attention to them and to what they need from me. I tell the people that work for me all the time that I understand in the scheme of things people would say that “you work for me,” but I think it’s equally true that I work for them. I have a role to play too in their job and in their success. When you get to a leadership position, there are some things you can do that others can’t. I try to use that authority to be in constant communication with my team about, “What’s in your way? How can I help you? Is it resources? Is it interoffice politics?” So leadership is also servant-ship. You have to be able to serve the people you are leading and make sure you meet their needs.

What I try to instill in my teams is a sense that bad news should travel as quickly as good news. People in the ranks should feel empowered and protected when they come to you and tell you they made a mistake or something went wrong, or something is about to go wrong. They can’t be afraid that I as a leader would hold that against them. Now if someone keeps making the same mistake over and over again, then you have a management issue to deal with. But I try to instill in the organization to celebrate our good news and pass it around, but let’s make sure that the difficult news or bad news travels as fast if not faster, because bad news is actionable and that’s where change comes from.

Also, people need to see you are just like them and that you make mistakes too. I try to fess up when I make mistakes in a way that’s very transparent. They have to trust you not just as a leader, but as a human being. They have to see that you know at the end of the day when we leave work we’re all equal, and that we’re all in this together. I also go out of my way to try to get to know the people that work for me. I do one-on-ones with all my employees — not just my direct reports — at least once a year. I sit down with everybody in the organization for 15 to 30 minutes and we talk about whatever we want to talk about — not necessarily work. It helps me get to know people as people and they get to know me. It’s a way of humanizing the boss/employee relationship and I think that’s really important.

David Cagigal, CIO, Wisconsin

David Cagigal was appointed CIO of Wisconsin in November 2012. Previously he worked in the private sector, including IT leadership roles for oil and gas projects in numerous cities with Amoco Corp. In 1998, he left Amoco to work for Maytag.

My role as CIO for the state of Wisconsin is to encourage collaboration among enterprisewide colleagues to help us take advantage of the skills and innovative ideas that exist among our IT talent. It’s crucial to build relationships, encourage dialog between policymakers, business people and IT professionals … and then let our talent flourish. My role, along with my IT counterparts, is to ensure the appropriate mechanisms are in place and that we spend every government dollar wisely in helping achieve Gov. [Scott] Walker’s goals of growing our economy, developing our workforce, transforming education, reforming government and building our infrastructure. Our state IT community continues to provide evidence of a customer-service focus.

Keys to Leadership

1 / Encourage dialog between diverse groups

2 / Empower staff to do their jobs

3 / Listen and learn from colleagues and stakeholders

A key element in a complex enterprise like ours is a clearly recognized IT governance structure. Gov. Walker recognized that too and established the IT Executive Steering Committee to provide direction across state government for enterprise IT strategies and policies. I serve on this committee alongside agency deputy secretaries as we utilize a collaborative and consensus-building approach.  

In addition, personal interactions are crucial in our industry. I attend the governor’s cabinet meetings, meetings of administrative officers, IT director meetings and meetings with my own managers. While I may not have all the answers, engaging with others allows good ideas to emerge from all sides. 

An example of this collaborative approach is how we are expanding broadband in Wisconsin. Available, affordable broadband will help Wisconsin meet Gov. Walker’s economic development initiatives, as well as prepare our students for the 21st-century workforce. When I became state CIO, I understood my responsibility to help expand and elevate broadband, but I knew this could only be accomplished with partners. Therefore, I reached out to the CIO at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a deputy superintendent at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. We all believe in the business case for broadband expansion and, in a short time, we had come up with goals for broadband in our schools and universities. We were speaking in a unified voice about what we want for our students and residents, which has led to additional bandwidth upgrades for public library systems across the state, which will significantly enhance community-based Internet access at libraries.

It’s also important to understand your role so that you can better align your business to the goals and mission of the organization. This allows you to identify opportunities and challenges in meeting those goals. Identify the skills of your employees so that you can empower staff to do their jobs. Listen and learn from your colleagues and stakeholders, and keep an eye to the future. Determine and recognize what your organization may need two, five or 10 years from now so that you can ensure your IT strategy is taking them down the correct path in the years ahead.

Keith Durbin, CIO/Director of Information Technology Services for the Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn.

Keith Durbin has served as CIO for the Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County since 2009. Before that, Durbin was a District 18 Metro council member and also served in a number of private-sector IT roles.

My base approach to leadership is the more collaboration we can possibly have, the better off we all are. And that’s everything from goal-setting to project work; it’s both internally and with all of our customers.

Keys to Leadership

1 / Encourage collaboration

2 / Listen before you speak

3 / Support diversity

My department is primarily a support department. We don’t necessarily touch our citizens, but our customers are those departments and agencies on the front line of government service, so we have to make sure that we understand that it’s their goals that need to be met and it’s our job to make sure that our departmental customers are aware of the technologies out there. If we’re putting a technology in place or recommending a technology for them, we’re doing it for the benefit of their customers, not because it’s a whiz-bang, not because it’s the latest and greatest thing, not for technology’s sake — but because it’s truly going to meet a need that they have.

Another big thing for me is diversity in what we do. I’m talking diversity of background, education, skill sets — all forms of diversity. The more we can bring to the table, it just makes a better product because someone is going to notice something, someone is going to have an idea that others wouldn’t have, and without that diversity, you wouldn’t have come up with the same innovative solution.

Listening before you speak and becoming good at active listening is also a critical part of the job, and it becomes much more important at the CIO level. If we aren’t listening and hearing those real solutions, there are way too many other options that department heads in state and local government have. They can go elsewhere and get their services. ITS exists to provide those services at a better cost and with a better understanding of their needs. If we are not listening, we’re missing the boat.

Carolyn Hogg, CIO, Fresno, Calif.

Carolyn Hogg has been CIO of Fresno since 2007. Prior to that, she served as CIO of Public Sector Partners Inc. and CIO of Madera Community Hospital. In 2012, Hogg was named a Local Innovation Champion of Change by the White House.

Keys to Leadership

1 / Be open-minded

2 / Value your staff

3 / Take risks 

The most important thing to me is to be open-minded and to use good listening skills. I think it’s also important to invest my time in my staff. As the economy has improved and we are recovering from the recession, departments in the city now have money to spend on technology. We had a two-year lull of not having money to invest in technology, and now all of a sudden the floodgates are open and all the other departments need my department to further their business. We are all just swamped, but my door is always open. As a leader you have to spend your time wisely and listen to what your staff is coming to you for because when you need them the most, they will be there for you. I understand how effective it is to have a healthy staff.

As a leader I also really like to empower my staff. I’ve been here for eight years so I know where the strength is in the department. I fully support the empowerment of allowing my staff to make their own, confident decisions, but it takes years to build that trust level.

The advice I often give is to know the people in your department and the other directors in the city. I also try to learn the culture of each organization and recognize those differences. The police department operates very differently than the finance department, for example. By understanding the dynamics of the different business cultures, I can have better conversations with those business units.

Before I came to Fresno, I was CIO for the community hospital in Madera. I have a health-care background. In fact, before I became CIO, I didn’t know anything about agriculture. But because it’s one of our mayor’s initiatives, I had to learn. Here in Fresno, we have chosen to participate in a federal partnership called Strong Cities, Strong Communities. Because of that partnership I started working with the USDA and other federal departments. It took me out of city hall and got me working with other agencies. Now I am comfortable talking to organizations like our broadband consortium and pushing them to see how technology is important to agriculture as well. As a leader, you have to be able to take some risks and work in new areas you might not be comfortable in yet.

David Stevens, CIO, Maricopa County, Ariz.

David Stevens took the helm as permanent CIO of Maricopa County in 2012, following his service as deputy CIO for the Infrastructure, Communications and Technology Department. Prior to that, he was CIO of Maricopa County’s court system.

Keys to Leadership

1 / Create a culture of success

2 / Invest in others

3 / Realize you can’t do it all yourself  

Getting things accomplished in the fourth largest county in the U.S. takes strong leadership. First and foremost, it’s about valuing people. That’s the underlying principle that guides my leadership style. Along with that I’ve discovered that very often, leadership happens in the interruptions. You have these moments in between scheduled meetings and efforts that feel like interruptions, but they are really opportunities for demonstrating leadership and helping people work through the problems they are facing. Hand-in-hand with that is understanding that listening is really a critical trait to leadership. You need to discover how to listen well so you can understand the problem and hopefully be able to coach or mentor or direct in a way that is meaningful.

Another key for me along those lines is trying to create a culture of success. That means allowing the employees to have shared ownership in the vision. Leadership is bringing together all the components that make that happen. Part of that is understanding that you need to invest in others’ careers and professional development.

Having a sense of humility and knowing that you are not able to do everything yourself is also critical. And finally, transparency. I often share my shortcomings or failures with others so they can understand that it’s OK to make mistakes.

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at