Creating a CIO Team That Rocks!

Last week at NASA Glenn Research Center, we ended the first strategic planning retreat that the NASA CIOs had as a senior leadership team.  We slugged through snarly issues like agency services contracts, ITIL, Enterprise Architecture, Social Media, IT security, disaster recovery management, and budget execution status.  By my own self-imposed performance measures it was good – that means I didn’t cry (though I got close) and I didn’t have a headache (though I had a sore throat from a 15-minute agenda item that turned into 2 hours).  Smiling NASA CIOs at Glenn Research Center June 2010

We didn’t make all the progress we wanted, but we did some great foundational work with a promise to get back together in July to advance some of our efforts.  In one of those close to tears moments, I talked about the leadership challenges of implementing organizational change and the need to start with the man or the woman in the mirror first.  I found myself spitting out some words that I would later eat myself. 

We invested about 2 hours in a team building exercise that ended up being a profound learning opportunity for all of us.  The team learning was simulated by 9-holes of golf with a format contrived to produce the necessary team learning experiences.  Individual team success depended on strategy, execution, coaching, and communication.  The team that I was on had the best strategy (I think) and came in with the lowest score.  However, we forgot that we were a team of teams and that we needed a collective strategy so that we all optimized results. 

Our “subject matter expert” came by around at hole 3 to talk to us about strategies that would optimize performance of the group.  We told him that we were superior and ingenious strategists who were coaching each other through excellence.  We thanked him for the double eagle he helped us get and promised to give him a call around hole 8 to help us with the crushing final blow that we would inflict at the end of the round.

After we finished hole 8, one of the members of the first team that finished came back with a cart to tell us not to forget the goal of the exercise was to maximize the total performance of the five teams, not just each individual team.  But it was too late.  By the time she got the message to everyone, even though all the teams were well led and had good strategies, the ultimate focus on individual team performance limited our ability to be effective as a group. 

It’s no surprise that companies face this same dilemma today.  Wageman (et. al) described in their book Senior Leadership Teams an example of why this is a critical problem for CEOs to solve.  They presented a case study of a team which was actually just a loose confederation of individual managers each with their own agenda.  Though the team in question had clear marching orders, there was little unity among the members and they often repeatedly returned to the same issues meeting after meeting.   Boy, this rings a bell. 

Leaders today who are facing extremely difficult problems with complex solutions need more than their individual heroics to prevail.  They need a high-performing team of senior leaders who have a group focus, shared direction, and who know how to harness their collective strength to solve their most difficult problems. 

We figured this out after two holes but didn’t care.  But leaders who lead during uncertain times that require tremendous results need to care.  And they must understand what they need to do in order to put the right conditions in place for success.  Yes, I had to eat my own words – they tasted Sweet.

Linda Cureton, CIO NASA