The Art of Change Leadership

When we become CIOs, we are typically asked to fix some pervasive problem: IT Security, OMB Compliance, failing projects, etc.  Lately, I’ve been quoting Teen Talk Barbie, who if she were a CIO today, would say “Being a CIO is hard!” versus “Math is hard!”  As CIOs, we have to take the time to understand the environment that we work in.  We need to understand the needs of our customers, constituents, and stakeholders in order to help them along the needed technology, cultural, and process changes.  Without the understanding and without the requisite change leadership skills, a CIO will beat her head against a brick wall for nine months, turn around and pound the other side for nine months, then quit.


Change Leadership is about transforming an organization, through people, processes, and technology, towards some needed improvement or in a new and challenging direction.  The art of successfully doing this will energize an entire organization to WANT to go in the desired direction. 


“Art begins with resistance – at the point where resistance is overcome.  No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.” – Andre Gide


The art of Change Leadership is not a paint-by-numbers approach used by grade-schoolers to make a still life … it is the ways and means that the change artist coaxes a masterpiece out of the canvas of her organization.  It’s not the paint-by-numbers approach that uses only directive communication plans, it’s a flexible strategy that seeks to eliminate barriers to change, implement the change, and integrate the change in the hearts, minds, and souls of those effected.  It builds a shared vision with the community that the CIO serves. 


When we become CIOs, we have to realize we are not working in a dictatorship and that we need change leadership competencies in order move the change agenda forward. The CIO’s failure to effectively execute the art of Change Leadership will result in change that is merely temporary or in 18-month CIO lifecycles. 


Linda Y. Cureton, CIO NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


Speaking Mission: When You’re Not Talking to Ancient Romans and Geeks

Speaking Mission: When You’re Not Talking to Ancient Romans and Geeks


Politicians have debated the need for immigrants to be able to speak English.  I don’t really want a piece of that debate, but, maybe CIOs need to be able to speak English – or more specifically, speak Mission.  In other words, speak in terms our customers and stakeholders understand versus IT jargon and Geek-speak.


I recently had the pleasure of hearing a Gartner Analyst, Richard Hunter, talk about the merits of CIOs speaking and measuring their performance in terms that the business understands.  I explained to him that at NASA, we would understand that to mean CIOs should speak and measure in terms that “the Mission understands.  And in a wonderful example of eating is own dog food, he easily made the translation to NASA-speak.


Speaking Mission has important implications for thinking about IT as a “cost” versus IT as an “investment”.  Consider … “The Office of the CIO proposes spending $500,000 to upgrade and modernize the network backbone to provide 1G data rates” versus “The Office of the CIO proposes investing $500,000 to upgrade the science building infrastructure to promote collaboration and information sharing needed to create science products and exchange large amounts of data”.


I was talking to one of my colleagues at Goddard not too long ago; a very smart gentleman, Dr. J.  I was telling him that one of the things that we need to do strategically is establish (and live in) a federated architecture to help us define and identify our “as-is” state, our “to-be” state, and develop our IT Capital Plan for how we are going to get to the “to-be” state in terms of our business, applications, data, and technology infrastructure.  He nodded politely with approval and thus affirmed in my mind that indeed I was a very smart CIO.  Then he said to me that was all well and good, and a great idea, but what we really need is something that documents what we have, documents our mission requirements, and gives us a plan for how to meet the mission requirements  – then we just need to figure out if we can afford it.  Gulp.  Isn’t that what I just said? 


I had a flashback to an encounter I had in a store.  I ran into Sanford Speight, a former classmate of mine in Mr. Cave’s eighth-grade Latin class.  After 30 years, I was surprised I still recognized him and called out his name.  I reminded him that I was in his Latin class at Kelly Miller Junior High School in Washington, DC.  He said to me, “Oh yes, I remember.  You’re the only person that I have ever known, to this day, that could actually speak in Latin.”  Boy, I’m glad that I didn’t say to him what I really wanted to say when I saw him … “Mene memoria tenetis?” I suppose only an ancient Roman would appreciate that query.


I got a real lesson from Dr. J. that day and from Sanford.  The answer was no; I spoke in IT terms and not in terms that were relevant.  So, to him, I didn’t say that, or more accurately, I said, “blah, blah, blah”.  I was speaking IT jargon and not speaking to him in terms that were relevant to him as a leader of one of our lines of business.   


Hunter emphasized this in his discussions with us.  CIOs who successfully deliver business (Mission) performance through IT, face a future of great opportunity and increased influence when they talk and act like this.  Sooner or later they will be viewed as tied to and relevant to the mission.


Linda Y. Cureton

Update — But Girls,It Still Works! AND Speaking in Terms the Mission Understands

Update — But Girls, It Still Works! AND Speaking in Terms the Mission Understands


My last two posts were about my grandfather’s technology woes with his navigation system and communicating in “mission-speak”.  Current events warrant an update. 


This CIO granddaughter got the navigation system to work.  Daddy Carl was a happy user.  The problem was that there was no language selected.  Just selecting English did the trick.  So, to extend customer fulfillment and delight, I went a step further.  I mentioned in earlier post that my grandfather had a British-West Indian accent.  So, I changed the voice to a male with a British accent. 


My grandfather was so happy and he exclaimed, “Now, I can even *understand* what it’s saying!!!”


Mission-Speak in the right accent.  As the Verizon flea would say, “WOW!”



Linda Y. Cureton

What If The Great Karnak Were a CIO?

What If The Great Karnak Were a CIO?


One of my favorite people to work with is Mike Hecker, Associate CIO of Architecture, Futurist, and Humorist at NASA.  He joked about the NASA CIO, Jonathan Pettus and the Johnny Carson character “The Great Karnak”.  So, I thought … hum, what if CIOs could predict the answer to the question before it was asked? What if they could shape or manage demand for IT services?


That sounds like the “demand-side” of the CIO versus the “supply-side” of the CIO.  As a CIO, one of the “bad places” to be is solely on the supply-side.  What’s up with this new jargon supply-side and demand-side?  In English, supply-side is the CIO as a service provider and manager of IT services – with apologies to Janet Jackson, “What have you done for me lately?” demand-side is the CIO as a leader and strategist – “What IT investments do we need to deliver mission outcomes competitively?” This is a bar room discussion that we have had often at the Goddard Space Flight Center, regrettably, without benefit of a Cosmopolitan. 


CIO.COM discusses a relevant anecdote in “Federal IT Flunks Out”, May 15, 2006.  At the retirement ceremony of Dan Matthews, former CIO of Department of Transportation and current Lockheed Martin executive, a top-level executive mentioned how Dan always helped out with fixing Blackberry problems (the supply-side of the CIO).  Dan responds:


“Agency executives know that CIOs provide a vital resource to organizations—they just don’t know what it is.”


I suppose he knew the key to being a successful CIO was to also add noteworthy value through the demand-side – i.e., capturing and prioritizing requirements, assigning resources based on business and mission objectives and doing projects that deliver business and mission benefits.


In the IT Transformation that is going on at Goddard, some have suggested that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the supply-side role of a CIO and the demand-side.  Consider this thought by Ellen Kitzis, “CIOs must lead by setting expectations on the demand side and leading their IT team to deliver on that promise on the supply side.” The right balance of both the demand-side and the supply-side will optimize the mission value of IT in an organization.


So if The Great Karnak was a CIO, he would say “C-I, C-I, O”.  The question would be, “Who does Old MacDonald turns to for advice about how to get more value from his farm using information technology”.   Yep, maybe we should be like Karnak.

Linda Y. Cureton

Are You Smarter Than A CIO?

Are You Smarter Than A CIO?


I was having a particularly tough week when I had to give a presentation to my Center explaining exactly what a CIO does.  I managed to pull together a rather tongue-in-cheek power point presentation that was actually very therapeutic for me. I supplemented the presentation by inviting the group to take the “Are You Smarter Than A CIO Survey.” I will report some of the discoveries below.  But, it got me thinking, how does a CIO ever get herself smart enough about the mission she serves?


In an article about Future CIO Competencies in, three types of CIOs are described – the Function Head, the Transformational Leader, and the Business Strategist.  Pretty much, the role of the CIO as a Function Head is clearly understood … “Why don’t I see my meetings on my blackberry?” “Why do I have to have so many passwords?” “Where’s my email?” The goal of the Function Head is to be forgotten, like the Maytag Repairman. 


However, the Transformational Leader strives to partner with the mission and the Business Strategist seeks to focus on innovation and understand organizational differentiators.  Now here’s the paradox: as soon as you’ve transformed, things become status quo; as soon as you’ve innovated, things become old hat.  So as soon as a CIO reaches her “status” in those areas, she ceases to be successful in that space. 


So, that means I’m either forgotten or a failure.  Yeah, that really was a tough week.


This starts to touch on a notion suggested by one of the most powerful qualities of leadership – humility.  It’s not a skill you proudly develop; it’s something that you approach asymptotically – you can’t really get there because if you think you’re there, that proves you’re not there. 


“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”

    Ezra Taft Benson


This means that questions like “Who are you?”  and “What does a CIO do?” become less relevant than “What do we need to do in order to become a more competitive and innovative organization?”


So, here are some survey results:


What does CIO stand for?


    1.6% said Can’t Implement the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA

    11.5% said Career is Over

    86.9% said Chief Information Officer


What is the #1 Goal of the CIO?


    6.4% said it was to assimilate all technology

    6.4% said it was to insert fear, uncertainty, and doubt into our mission and business processes

    2.1% said it was to destroy all life, as we know it

    85.1% said it was advise the Goddard Space Flight Center Director on all IT matters


A CIO’s favorite people to talk to are:


    8.7% said ancient Romans

    60.9% said Center network engineers

    30.4% said people who are not listening.


And finally, being the CIO of the Goddard Space Flight Center is better then:


    2.5% said being a French horn player with no gig

    5.0% said being a trumpet player with no chops

    5.0% said being a left-handed cartographer using pen and ink

    12.% said cleaning out test tubes in an infectious diseases lab

    60.0% said nothing is better


The survey results clearly show that my stakeholders are “smarter than a CIO”.  How humbling. So, I guess nothing is better than being the CIO of the Goddard Space Flight Center. 


Linda Cureton


The Great CIO Organization: Building the Right Team

The Great CIO Organization: Building the Right Team


I passed Tonjua in the hall one day.  She is one of my up-and-coming young leaders and is leading a team planning the administrative activities required to implement our IT reorganization.  It had been a particularly difficult day for her dealing with team issues.  She asked me, “What kind of science project do you have me on?”


I have no doubt that Tonjua and her teammates will meet their goals.  The team is a very diverse team with strong skills in this particular area.  Their shared thinking will yield products that will be better than they would have without their contributions.  This is no doubt a tough gig for Tonjua, and maybe tough for some to watch.  But, these are the right people to create the right product for the organization with the right leadership.


For a CIO, creating the right senior leadership team to create a “great” CIO organization is critical.  Jim Collins implores us to first get the right people on the bus, to build the superior team.   After this is done, a CIO and her team can figure out the path to greatness.


In the book “Senior Leadership Teams” (by Ruth Wageman, et. al.), the authors identify essential conditions that senior leaders should establish for their leadership teams:


(1)   Create a real team, rather than one that is a team in name only,

(2)   Provide the team with a clear and compelling purpose, and

(3)   Ensure that the team consists of members who have the knowledge, skill and experience required for the team’s work.


Perhaps my first lesson in the importance of this was as a young French horn player at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC.  My best friend Donna and I were both experienced seniors and very capable horn players.  Our band director wanted us to have the best chance of winning a band competition after coming in second place the year before.  He added two beginner horn players to fill out our section.  Donna and I thought they were awful and since we wanted to win too, we told the two of them to hold their horn but don’t play — ever.  When we were playing our award winning performance, I heard the most beautiful sounds from the French horn section.  The two newbies decided to practice on their own – honing their skills.  And practice they did.  On performance day, the “four” of us sounded so good, the judges made a special note of the beautiful French horn section – the lovely French horn team.


Ironically, one the songs we played beautifully was “People”:


“People who need people, are the luckiest people, in the world”


Great organizations are built with great people.  And CIOs who know this are indeed the luckiest people in the world.


Linda Y. Cureton