Experience Base: Leading an Enterprise Change Initiative

Nearly everything Douglas Saunders needed to know about leading enterprise change, he learned in the halls of Congress.

Before beginning his IT career fifteen years ago, Saunders was a newly minted poli-sci grad serving as an aide for a U.S. senator from Alabama. There may be less back-stabbing and fewer back-room deals involved implementing a new enterprise-wide change than in getting a bill through a divided bicameral legislature, says Saunders, but the required political skills of collaboration and influence are the same.

"There are a lot of people who can build project plans and report on them, and that's very important [in leading enterprise-wide change]. But being able to build relationships and get buy-in is a key component," says Saunders, now director of field infrastructure for waste management company Republic Services and a participant in the CIO Executive Council's Pathways leadership development program. "You can get that textbook stuff down, but dealing with personalities is tricky."

When forging future IT leaders, this is an important on-the-job experience. You can't, however, just throw anyone who's delivered smaller projects successfully into that fire.

"I've made mistakes where I put someone in charge of an enterprise level project who had done very well on a smaller scale. But when they went to step up, they just weren't ready," says Michael Whitmer, global CIO and North American vice president of operations for professional services firm Hudson. "It all boils down to lack of confidence and individual comfort with receiving feedback, and having interactions at higher levels [in the organization]. Sometimes they're just not up for the challenge."

Saunders, whom Whitmer mentors as part of the Pathways program, only needed a little push in the right direction. Republic's CIO recently tapped Saunders to spearhead a strategic reorganization of the trash hauler's customer services organization--in addition to his day job. Saunders knew he didn't have to win friends, but at least needed to influence members of upper management. He led similarly large-scale and disruptive integration projects related to Republic's acquisition of the much larger Allied Waste and knew just how important executive buy-in would be for success.

But working directly with business owners didn't automatically make him comfortable with members of the C-suite. Saunders was worried how the highest-ups would react to an IT director leading a major business reorganization, and he could have relied on his boss--the CIO--or the project's business owner--the executive vice president of sales--to handle C-level issues. But he was bolstered by the fact that he had a strong project team behind him and a CIO and EVP of sales encouraging him to step up. He also participated in Pathways mentoring sessions specifically addressing the importance of embracing the chance to "get in front of the C-level team," says Saunders. "To be a leader I had to lead my team and not duck the opportunity. I think I earned the respect of the project team by not backing away from the opportunity and interjecting my opinion." Today, Saunders meets at least once a quarter with C-level leaders. "I'm on a first name basis with the CEO," he says.

As Whitmer advises his own direct reports, successful enterprise level change initiatives require rigorous relationship building not just occasional flings. "I encourage people always build relationships in evolutionary way so when large initiatives come up, you're prepared to be successful with them," he says. "One, you need to understand their business well to succeed. And, two, you need their support and sponsorship."

It's such an important ingredient in successful enterprise change management that Whitmer tracks his own relationship building efforts. "I have a worksheet I use--a relationship matrix--to formalize it," he explains.

For the customer service reorganization, Saunders created a formal relationship by recruiting key business and IT leaders to the steering committee, which he co-chairs with the business unit director. "You're always going to have personality conflicts," Saunders says. "But these committee meetings have become open and honest dialogues for collaboration."

One lesson Saunders has taken from the overcoming conflicts on the committee--where consensus is rare--is when to stop talking and make an executive decision. "We might table something if it doesn't need immediate action, or elicit feedback from focus groups to validate one opinion or other," he says. "But often it's just about staying within the framework and the plan, agreeing to disagree, and making a decision."

The customer service transformation has also taught Saunders the importance of communicating early and effectively about the impact on employees. Ultimately, the project will consolidate the company's 120 customer service centers and, according to Saunders, change the culture of customer service in the organization. "You can't just walk in, change something and leave," Saunders says. "Even if it's something as simple as a new phone system, you have to make sure the end user knows what's going to happen, what it's going to happen, and how it's going to affect them."

With all of these change management variables in mind, Saunders is taking things slow with the project. He plans to implement the reorganization over three to four years instead of eighteen months. "We've seen large customer services organizations that have undergone major changes fail miserably in the industry, because they were only doing it for the bottom line benefit and they rushed through it," Saunders says. "While I don't want this to be a costly black hole, we want to take our time to make sure we get the full benefit."

As for the CIO's role in guiding up-and-coming IT leaders tackling enterprise-level change for the first time, Whitmer says it's pretty simple. "You have to tell them you've got their back 110%. If you're one of those CIOs that puts people out there to fail or succeed on their own, which happens quite a lot, it's not going to work."

The Council's Pathways Program was created by CIOs to build business and IT leadership skills in senior IT leaders through group mentoring with CIOs, 360-degree competencies assessment, targeted seminars and community forums. To learn more, visit council.cio.com/pathways.html.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based freelance writer.

This story, "Experience Base: Leading an Enterprise Change Initiative" was originally published by CIO.

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