November 04, 2010, 9:54 PM — 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.