Leadership Means Finding Your True Voice

It’s unusual for a man to sing in America. It’s not at all unusual in Scotland, where I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Back there, you went to a house party, and there came a time when everyone gathered in a semicircle around the fire. Everybody had a turn, and you sang or told stories. Whatever it is you did, whatever your little part, you just kind of learned to do it. And when you were asked to perform, you were ready.

PDF DownloadSo I’m accustomed to being the performer, coming in as a new executive to turn something around. On Day One, I know I have a clean slate, and have to start proving myself from scratch. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. What I did before means nothing. If anything, it’s a minus, because they’re just seeing this guy coming in for a big paycheck. I have to deliver in the eyes of not only my colleagues, but my employees.

On that first day, I’m coming in with this big sack over my shoulder, and it’s filled with power. My job is to end up with an empty sack. If I do my job right and we all pull together, we’ll have figured out where the contents of that sack belong, and everyone will have taken his or her fair share. My goal is to work myself out of a job. I hope I’ll find some believers in the organization, and this place will learn to run itself. It won’t need me anymore. Fortunately, that’s how it often works out. There comes a time when I realize—”I’m not as busy as I was. I’m spending more time on things that don’t interest me. These people are perfectly capable of managing the whole thing.” That’s one of the joys of having wonderful people in your organization.

Early on in my career I devised the notion of “The What” and “The How,” which requires that technology people maintain dual relationships. They report to the CEO for The What. It’s his money we’re spending, after all. Technology people are responsible to him for delivering value for that money. But they’re responsible to me for The How: We decide what the standards are or what the organizational structure might be. We get into architecture and governance and reusability. That’s our business—managing those assets as best we can, for the benefit of the organization. And technology is the last part of that conversation.

When I arrived at Eli Lilly in 1984, we were changing the culture of a company to a large extent, committing the heresy of telling these medical researchers that we were really an information company. Lilly’s technology department hadn’t had an auspicious reputation. The people there were fabulous—hardworking and committed, with a desire to succeed. They were just kind of lost. They suffered a bit from an organizational rotation system where people tended to change jobs every 18 months, on a fast track designed to develop leaders. That might have great benefits, but sometimes it can work too well in functions that require expertise.

There were situations where a chemist or a biologist was running tech support. Or you had a bunch of heavy technical people who wanted to make a difference, without the kind of leadership that they needed, being very frustrated. Getting the right organization, the right people in charge, helped. And they just needed a little help—leadership, vision, support, funding, whatever. But they also needed to feel that they were being protected and funded and stretched, and that they had a sense of where they fit and what was expected of them. When the business turned around or significant change was made within the organization, they already knew the answers. They just needed the permission to speak up.

There was one particularly intransigent group. When we were introduced, I was trying to show them who I was—trying to show them a human face—and talk to them about our communal mission. But they were slow to warm up. So I tried a bit of humor. I said, “I’ve been known to sing, you know, and all it takes is somebody to ask me. I never refuse, and I might even have to spontaneously start singing just to show you there’s a human being up here.” And somebody said, “Okay—sing.” And, by God, I sang. Danny Boy just poured out of me. They were astonished. I think it was a turning point. It showed an unexpected side of me. They believed in it, and believed in me. It was a first baby step in building a better relationship.

—written with Joshua Weinberger

Tom Trainer, former Chief Information Officer at CitiGroup, Eli Lilly and Reebok, is Chairman of Enamics, a software company that helps CIOs unlock the business value of technology.