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When IT Success Taps Team Spirit

By Robert Whitehead  |  Posted 2002-09-09 Print this article Print

After weathering Y2K at SunTrust Banks, veteran CIO Robert Whitehead talks about the payback that comes from putting people ahead of numbers.

I filled a transitional role as chief information officer of SunTrust Banks: I had one foot in the past and one in the future. I really enjoyed being with the people, seeing what they were doing and managing the tangible processes. That's the role of CIOs past.

And I did, in fact, also stay abreast of technologies and work with top management on the direction of the business. But I liked that side of it less—the visionary side—and I think that will be the focus of the next CIO at SunTrust. That's a natural progression as the company grows.

Probably the biggest and most complicated project I oversaw during my tenure as CIO was preparing the company for Y2K. And actually, Y2K played into one of my strengths, which is focusing on a mission and organizing large groups of people to go after it.

What made Y2K challenging were all the surprises that came with it—especially at a big company like SunTrust, where we were working with 200 to 300 outside vendors. In theory, Y2K was a situation where you set a path and start down it. But there were plenty of discoveries along the way—discoveries about processes you had that did not work exactly as you expected, unsettling discoveries about vendors. And the later in the process you had a discovery about a vendor, the faster you had to make choices about replacement vendors or about how you would overcome the vendor's inadequacy.

There were software consultants that made commitments to us during Y2K that they were unable to live up to. In almost every case, we used internal resources to fix the problem. One of the luxuries I had at SunTrust was a very dedicated staff of developers—many of them with 25-plus years of experience. In cases where we had vendor failures, we would put together a SWAT team of four or five people with deep knowledge about how the company ran. We would get the problem over with and behind us.

In leading people in strategic projects I've found there are two critical elements. One is helping them understand the end state and why that is better than where you are now. With something like Y2K, communicating that understanding was very easy: Either we open the doors the next day or we don't.

The other critical element in leading is treating people well. If the people you're working with know that you're going to champion their cause, you usually don't have any problem lining them up to accomplish something.

That said, you can't build a vision or get people to buy into it by long distance. So I spent a lot of time on the road during the Y2K project getting in front of the staff and talking about what we were trying to accomplish. And I spent a lot of time in my job actually walking the floor of the operation and looking people in the eye and listening to what they had to say. I did not spend a lot of time in my office.

Then too, people watch what you do. You cannot create too much distance between yourself and those you lead. For instance, you can't tell everybody that saving money is important and then drive around in a Mercedes—not even if you buy the Mercedes yourself. It just doesn't work. No company is perfect, and everybody runs into people in their careers that they enjoy working with more than others. Usually the people I enjoyed less were those who focused only on the results without understanding the contribution made by individual employees. Often from those people you learn what not to do, because you see quickly that motivating a staff is more difficult in that environment—in fact, you run the risk of disenfranchising them.

I never got in the mode of not caring about colleagues—nor did I stop thinking about results. It's how you're going to get there. Am I going to do it with the people or am I going to do it in spite of them?

Robert Whitehead was chief information officer at SunTrust Banks from 1998 until his retirement in June. Altogether, he spent 33 years at the bank.

—Written with Robert Hertzberg

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