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Leadership in IT with Don Welch 

Leadership in IT with Don Welch 

This blog was created from a recent episode of Device42’s podcast, The Hitchhikers Guide to IT. You can find the latest episodes here

CIOs are leading enterprises through a time of momentous change. Many accelerated digitization programs during the pandemic to create digital business models, products, and services, extending core-to-edge networks as a result. More recently, the debut of generative artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT has prompted CIOs and their teams to reinvent key workflows with these new capabilities. One thing is clear: There has never been a greater need for IT leadership: to deliver the business strategy, create a change-ready organization, and help companies exploit the potential of continual transformation. 

Recently, podcast host Michelle Dawn Mooney welcomed Don Welch to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to IT. Welch is the Vice President for Information Technology and Global University and the Chief Information Officer for New York University, previously serving in the U.S. Army for 25 years. IT leaders can use Welch’s insights in the podcast and this blog to build a trust-based culture that unlocks the full potential of high-performance teams to drive exceptional business results.

How Leadership Differs from Management

Mooney asked Welch to define leadership and share how it is different from management. 

Welch said he sees management as the organization of work and its mechanics. Project managers break down work into milestones and are accountable for ensuring teams achieve desired outcomes.  

Leadership, in contrast, involves motivating and working with people, not things or processes, Welch said. 

“And so, my definition of leadership is inspiring a group of people to achieve a common goal…. And if you can set up an environment where people are engaged, they’re enthusiastic, they’re happy, they look at the challenges, they feel that they’re growing, they’re really going to deliver for your organization. And they’ll deliver above and beyond what you think they should be able to deliver beyond their individual talent level. And I think that’s the key to leadership. When we look at great leaders, that’s what they do. They get more out of people than the people believe they have in themselves,” said Welch. 

The Difference Between Trust-Based Leadership and Command and Control

When Welch transitioned from the Army to the private sector, he took on a role as CEO of Merit Networks. The team there was concerned that he would impose a command-and-control leadership style, which they associated with the military. Welch said that concern was a misperception on both counts. 

“I think the idea that leadership relies on authority is really a problem. It was the same thing in the military. You can’t get people to go into harm’s way unless they trust you. You have to build that trust and you have to build that leadership relationship. In IT, I think it’s the same thing. You’ve got professionals, they know their jobs, they know what they’re doing, they have to trust you if they are going to follow you,” said Welch. 

Mooney asked how leaders can get people to trust them, so that they can help realize their teams’ talent and ability to contribute to achieving the organization’s mission. 

Welch said that this process involves merging individuals’ motivations and values into a team, so that the team produces more than each individual could on his or her own. In addition, Welch said that leaders also need to be able to see team member’s strengths, weaknesses, and growth potential. 

“If you think back into your career, the times where someone saw more in you than you saw in yourself and were able to bring that out, I think that’s the essence of a good coach…. If you think someone truly understands you, you tend to trust them more. If you understand them and there’s open communication, you understand their thought process, well, okay, that trust goes a little further. And as you continue to build that trust, that is the foundation of which you can do everything else as a team to deliver for your organization,” he said. 

Getting the Best Out of Teams 

When leaders care about their teams, they learn about their employees professionally and personally, gaining insight into colleagues’ hopes for their careers, areas they’d like to grow into, and skills they’d like to master. Leaders can also offer insights on new roles and responsibilities they think these individuals would be good at. 

Then, leaders can reward talented employees with assignments in the areas they want to learn about, so they can develop a sense of accomplishment and mastery. 

“When we feel that we are part of a team … and we are valued for what we do, then I think that there’s really no limit to what we can contribute. And if you can get most of the people or all the people on your team who are feeling that way, they’re feeling empowered, they’re feeling energized, they come to work and they want to do really good for the organization. Those are the people who are really gonna make a difference. And the more of those people you have in your organization, the better your team will be,” said Welch. 

Welch shared an anecdote from his days as CEO of Merit Networks, where he had a team of 

four vice presidents and 10 directors. Every six months they evaluated the directors, not on the strength of their team leadership, but on how they made their peers more successful. “And this I think was the key to our success,” he said. In fact, the company was honored by President Obama as a “Champion of Change” for leading one of the best network infrastructure projects funded by the Recovery Act. 

Building Trust – and Keeping It 

In addition to being transparent and caring about their teams, leaders can build trust by being competent. By demonstrating that that they have the best interests of the organization at heart, don’t have hidden agendas, and treat people fairly, leaders can build and keep trust with their teams, Welch said. 

So, what happens when leaders make mistakes, Mooney asked. 

Welch said that leaders need to own their mistakes because their teams see them. “And I think that will make you an even better leader than if you try and cover them up,” he said. 

Coaching Teams to Greatness 

Welch said it’s important to praise people when they’ve done a good job. However, the praise needs to be sincere, targeted to real accomplishments, and articulate how the person’s actions helped achieve organizational goals. 

“We think back in our careers of when someone did that to us. And you … felt grateful that someone understood what you were doing, and that it was something that you’d accomplished or you’d mastered or whatever it is,” Welch said. He referred to studies that demonstrate that praise is as powerful a motivator as raises, boosting employee productivity and creativity. 

However, leaders also need to be empowered enough to give people bad news about when they’ve fallen short. Welch acknowledged that critiquing individuals’ performance can be difficult. “But if we do it in a tactful and honest way, it can be very powerful,” he said. 

How to Become a Better Leader

Mooney asked Welch for tips anyone can use to improve their leadership abilities. Welch recommended:

  1. Talking to others to gain insight: Leaders can ask their bosses, peers, team members, and romantic partners on areas they need to improve in. “We as people need feedback to learn. Feedback can be painful, but it is important, [and it is] the key to becoming a better leader. If you are improving every day, then that’s it. It doesn’t have to be much, but if you’re moving in that right direction, then I think you’re going to be a successful leader,” said Welch. 
  1. Assessing yourself on a regular basis: Leaders can identify their own strengths and weaknesses and areas they want to improve, such as communications or coaching. 
  1. Leveraging key resources: Leaders can use articles, studies, and videos, from Harvard Business Journal, McKinsey, and others to develop their skills. They can also talk to individuals who possess the gifts they want to develop to understand how they think and behave. Many leaders seek out multiple mentors so that they can test new ideas, gain feedback, and continuously grow their abilities. 
  1. Repeating key behaviors: Then, repeat desired behaviors until they become second nature. “Research has shown that you have to repeat some action or behavior hundreds of times before it becomes second nature. Some of the research I’ve read, it’s around 200 times,” says Welch, who says that this means new behaviors need to be modeled every workday.
  1. Reflecting on your progress: Welch recommends journaling a few sentences a day to capture input, such as “How well did I communicate today? Did I use a feedback loop? Did I use the right channels? Did I think about what I wanted the action to be from the person I was communicating with? How well did I convey that?”
  1. Staying committed: Developing leadership abilities is a life-long journey, so executives need to lean into ongoing self-assessment and behavioral change. 

“If you improve on one thing a year, before you know it, you’re gonna be running the world. But I think that patience and that focus is really important if you’re going to improve, because leadership is behaviors. The importance of that for IT, I think it’s absolutely critical because IT is a people business,” said Welch. 

Interested in learning more about IT leadership? Visit the NYU IT CIO Insights blog, where Welch shares his insights on a weekly basis. 

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