Niel Nickolaisen, CTO of O.C. Tanner, proposes a leadership approach to help CIOs and CTO strike the right balance between flexibility and control.

I am often unsure about where to centralize and where to de-centralize. The tension between centralization and de-centralization happens in a variety of areas, both organizational and technical: Should we have an company-wide work-from-home policy, or should each team sort it out for themselves? How tightly-defined should our architecture be, and at what level should architectural decisions be made? Should we have a global job description and career path structure? What is the balance between control, freedom and potential chaos?

After years of struggling with these questions, and having tried a number of models and approaches, I now feel confident that I have found the answer. And that answer is…….it depends!

I am guessing you are underwhelmed by my grand conclusion, so allow me to provide some clarity. Based on my experience, the amount of freedom to allow, or control to exert, should depend almost entirely on the maturity of your teams.

Lessons from a Civil War Leader

I recently read a narrative history of the United States Civil War. While it was an interesting read for the history of the conflict, it was even more interesting from the perspective of leadership. What were the characteristics and practices of the successful leaders? How did they balance control, freedom and chaos?

My favorite example of leadership recounted in the book was Ulysses S. Grant. His army was agile, adaptive, confident and dominant. He developed his team and gave them incredible freedom. When Grant was promoted from leading the armies in the West to take charge of all Union armies, his orders to his replacement, General Sherman, were:

“You I propose to move against Johnston’s army to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all of the damage you can against their war resources. I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to be done, and leave you free to execute in your own way. Submit to me however as early as you can your plan of operations.”

Grant gives two objectives: 1. break up the opposing army and 2. reduce the ability of the Confederate States to wage war. That is all. Sherman took ownership of these objectives and moved forward. Sherman made the decisions he thought would accomplish the objectives and Grant did not meddle.

Grant moved east and found he had to take a direct and controlling hand in the operation of the Army of the Potomac. Why? Because that army had been poorly-led and poorly-developed and was not ready to act on its own. Early in his time with the eastern army he tried to give only the types of high-level orders he gave in the West, but found that this led to challenges. In response, he got more directive until he found leaders who took ownership and figured out how to get things done, and done well.

Custom Approach for Each Team

This lesson has made a profound impact on how I lead. I have started to customize my approach with my teams. Some need more direction than others and we no longer define global policies and rules. For example:

  • Work-from-home policy: We do not have a company-wide work-from-home policy but each team can define its own. If a team has implemented some form of work-from-home and is struggling with delivery, I ask them to look at changes to what they are doing.

  • Micro-services: We have implemented a micro-services architecture and have centralized the rules for how the micro-services connect, but I leave it to each team to decide how they will implement those rules for their service. If a team is struggling with connection errors or latency, we impose more control on their use of the rules.

  • Career paths: We have a common framework for career paths, but each group customizes that to their needs. Why even have a common framework? So that people can easily move among groups, and so that we can ensure some level of promotion and compensation equity.

As the leader of the group, I focus my attention on the development of the leaders of the teams. My goal is to be able to "give orders”, like those Grant gave to Sherman, and then watch as my teams deliver and continuously improve. Mind you, this has not resolved all of our issues, but it has reduced the tension we all felt over how much to centralize, and it has had a positive overall effect on our culture.

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