When Good Leaders Lose Credibility

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Posted by Geneca - 11 April, 2013

Is your team’s reputation holding you back?

by Gary Heusner

Tammy, CIO for a popular software as a service company, was struggling to improve her relationships with her peers. Even though she acted with integrity and was an involved, reliable, and caring leader, she and her IT team struggled to build better relationships with their CFO and CMO.

During a long conversation with her CEO, Tammy was told that he needed more from her and her team. Her organization was simply not trusted to deliver on critical projects.   Projects were unpredictable. Success was inconsistent. The CEO's parting words echoed loudly:   In a service company that values honesty, integrity and reliability, her team was perceived as falling short of expectations.

WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING…?

Looking for answers, Tammy asked her CMO peer, Neal Wallace, to lunch on Monday to discuss how she could make improvements.  The meeting created more questions than answers. Neal told her that he liked many of her people and really respected her.  The company achievement award she had earned a few years ago for exemplifying company core values was not diminished in his mind. However, he also said that his staff was constantly complaining that they could not get anything done with her team.  The IT team was a black box and treated his team with the same personal interaction they gave to their laptops.

His team made commitments and then felt held hostage because they could not get information on where the IT team was on any of their initiatives.  Now they felt it just wasn't worth the effort.

Following the meeting with Neal, Tammy was confused.  The IT team had a clear process.  They spent months creating it and informing the other departments how it worked and why it would improve service.  The process had been championed by everyone, including Neal.  So why was it now so misunderstood?

She pulled up the website that showed ticket and project status for everything IT was working on.  The project management site was current.  Everything was there and even included the changes from this afternoon's staff meeting.  It couldn’t be clearer: staff allocation, progress to baseline, Gantt charts and EVM calcs were all listed in detail down to the task level.  The system sent out notifications of all daily changes and even a status for requests that had not yet been reviewed.

ANOTHER LUNCH BRINGS MORE BAD NEWS

Determined to crack this problem, Tammy scheduled another lunch – this time with her CFO, Cassandra Kelly.   Wednesday's lunch came and went, leaving Tammy even more concerned and disappointed.  Maybe her team was falling apart?  She didn't want to believe what she had heard.

Although Cassandra appreciated the reduced IT costs from using offshore and onshore resources, she told Tammy she could not afford to miss deadlines on upcoming integration efforts with the new customer engagement and ERP systems.  There had already been a series of missteps by IT in the early execution phase as they got up to speed, causing some early deadlines to be missed.  However, everyone on the executive team had agreed to stretch and take on the high probability of problems in order to complete the project in the current fiscal year.

Although the IT team was doing much better now and starting to develop velocity, Cassandra felt that they were still not getting the projected value from the IT investment.  She assured Tammy that while she respected her personally, she was now in a squeeze to honor her commitments.  Her reputation (and that of her team) was on the line and she needed more from IT right now. Cassandra had not understood that failure was a real possibility or she would not have agreed to the risky timeline.

Tammy had heard enough.  A clear message was emerging:  Tammy was widely respected for her personal integrity and trustworthiness. However, because her team was perceived as ineffective, Tammy was as well.  While she was focused on building her own credibility, she should have been spending just as much time building her team’s credibility.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS…

Next, Tammy turned to her CIO networking group and shared the input from her C-level peers.  She left the meeting with specific insights to mull over:

  • Did her team spend enough time building relationships with other departments?  The basic concept was that a company was a collection of relationships.  Relationships need to be nurtured with time and quality attention.  Tammy would need to make sure processes weren’t preventing people from interacting and growing relationships.
  • Is improving the trustworthiness of individual team members part of the plan to improve overall department relationships? Tammy needed to work with individual team members to make sure they were fully present, focused on their customers, and authentic in their interactions and not overly reliant on processes.
  • Is there enough resiliency in her team’s relationships within the organization to absorb small setbacks? When enough time was invested in building quality relationships and supporting the needs of individuals in other departments, Tammy’s team would gain more ability to absorb small setbacks.  Additionally, their reputation as reliable and trustworthy would  improve their ability to execute quickly.   In hindsight, Tammy’s team should have made sure they could execute first and not overreach to accomplish Cassandra’s tasks. Even if it was more expensive at first to plan for more skilled resources, it would have ultimately been less expensive.
  • Is her team measured by value delivered or dollars spent?  Lastly, many efforts on the surface that look like smart fiscal maneuvers, actually weakened relationships by putting more emphasis on dollars spent than total value delivered. In situations like this, aspects like quality and internal customer satisfaction tend to be relegated to secondary importance when teams believe they are measured primarily on cost. While easier and less expensive for IT, was the data her team blasted to everyone about projects inadvertently undermining her team’s value perception?  This process-heavy approach eliminated opportunities to connect and communicate, leaving internal customers feeling abandoned and underserved.

CREATING AN APPROACH…

The following week Tammy met with a group of her senior IT leaders to determine how to improve the perception of their team.  She laid out the challenge before them and explained the situation as an opportunity for them to address the concerns of their internal customers.  After several hours, the team emerged with a skeletal structure to address their issues and an agreement to discuss implementation in their next meeting:

IT Team Plan to Improve Organizational Trust With Our Internal Customers

  1. Be Credible: Provide realistic estimates (dollars, resources, time) for the technologies and activities we will perform by increasing the skills of our internal resources and/or leveraging outside resources where necessary.
  2. Improve Reliability: Understand the difference between commitment, best efforts and good intentions within our department.  Make sure we communicate to our customers in clear, consistent language so we can effectively manage their expectations.
  3. Be Transparent: Make sure we have agreement with our internal customers on what we will measure before we start working.  Tammy commits to regular quality reviews with top customers and teams to track progress.
  4. Reduce Team Self Focus: Collaborate with customers to develop new processes that will give them the useful information they need to be successful. Even if that means a slightly higher cost, it will prevent us from focusing only on what makes IT better rather than our internal customers and the overall business goal.
  5. Build Character: Create shared understanding on how to deliver our core values and provide the best possible service.  Even if that sometimes means saying no or delivering disappointing news to our clients, our goal is to always get to a yes we can all agree on. We also need to hone our communications skills and do a better job listening and understanding our customers.  Note: Not a quick fix.

After several months progress had been made the new behaviors were starting to taking hold.   The commitment from the group was solid and Tammy was cautiously optimistic.

Six months after their initial conversation, Tammy scheduled a follow-up meeting with the CEO.  Tammy was hopeful about the outcome, but still uncertain as to the input the CEO was  receiving about the performance of the IT team from the rest of the company.

Turning the corner…

The meeting with the CEO went better than Tammy expected.  Not only was there recognition that the team was making strides to improve, there was real gratitude that her team had invested itself in a recent opportunity with Marketing.  An initial proposal from Neal, the CMO, had been finalized collaboratively for a best outcome for the company.  Although it meant bringing in an outside group, everyone felt like the team was open, committed and on the right track to success.  The IT team’s flexibility, partnering and experience with outside vendors, allowed the company to make better decisions and an optimal implementation.

For Tammy, the best part was when the CEO asked her to lead an effort to share some of the changes she had made in her department with him and her peers.  The CEO was looking to build more trust to improve execution, partnering and resiliency before embarking on new programs for the fiscal year.  This was validation that -- while not perfect-—her team was making a noticeable impact.

Tammy’s confidence was restored.  While she had always followed all the rules and done everything right, a shadow had been cast on her credibility as a leader.  Determined to turn things around, she successfully restored her reputation by helping her team to improve its own trustworthiness.

Topics: culture, leadership


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