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As leader of an Army combat engineering unit 25 years ago, and throughout his career in business as a manager, and now as CIO, Mark Hoffmann has seen that navigating successfully through periods of massive change requires leaders who can be both firm and flexible.

While MBA programs concentrate on the successes and failures of major corporations and their strategic initiatives, they don’t necessarily teach future executives how to lead through change at a practical level. Whether you are working at a Fortune 50 or a small cap company, success with change comes down to you, the executive, and how you lead your managers and employees. 

My first experience leading a team through change came more than 25 years ago, when my combat engineering unit was detached from the 101st Airborne and reassigned to the 1st Cavalry Division.  In short, I had to shift my team to a whole new way of planning, executing, and supporting our ‘customers.’ We literally went from being foot soldiers working only with what we could carry, to heavily armored soldiers working with large machinery and a massive logistics operation at our back. Picture taking someone’s shovel away and giving them a backhoe, or taking someone’s bicycle and giving them a 4WD SUV, both with unlimited fuel.

It is incredible to reflect on that experience and how it shaped my response to change as an employee, manager, and now executive. I am currently leading our technology and R&D teams though a period of massive change.

Change Driven by Business Growth

When I took the helm as CIO, we were a small sleeper company just trying to survive. As we grew by double digits year over year, I had to constantly balance my vision for the future with the need to keep our products running and growing. In six years, we captured major market share for one of our products, causing the dissolution of a major competitor, we stabilized a bug-ridden product, which then gained respectable market share, and introduced more than a half dozen new products to the market. While all this transpired, we grew four-fold in headcount, opened a second warehouse operations facility, and made major upgrades to our infrastructure and ERP.

By the summer of 2017, the growth of our organization, the quality of our products, and our market reputation led to a private equity (PE) investment. This transaction has raised our bar for performance. I liken it to moving from the minor league to the major league in baseball. We need to retain some of what got us to where we are with regard to innovation, customer service, and market responsiveness. But now we must introduce more rigor and predictability to our processes. Like the transition from the 101st Airborne to the 1st Cavalry, my team needs to shift from thinking and acting with small unit tactics to thinking and operating with well-coordinated large unit tactics. To continue the military analogy, we are no longer attacking the market with foot soldiers, we are doing it with tanks, and soon, with air support. 

Advice for Managing IT Through Change

Change is not easy for anyone.  I have some rules for managing through change that have worked for me in the past, and seem to be working for me now:

1. Foster successful change management at the grass roots.

Believe that your team, at all levels, has good ideas. Spend time talking to your team members, who will support the change efforts, as well as those who will oppose them. Both sides will give you insights on the strengths and weakness of your plan. They will also give you priceless feedback on the barriers and obstacles that will prevent the change from growing enough roots to flourish and bear fruit. It can be hard to do, but take off your “executive cloak” to absorb what your team is bringing forward, and let your team help affect the change. The more they can own, the more they will help you drive toward success.

2. Identify your supporters and your biggest antagonists. 

Keep your supporters excited through direct, honest and frequent communication of your vision, and how they play a role in fulfilling it. They will help you drive your changes forward from the grass roots. Ask for, evaluate and incorporate negative feedback. Accepting, evaluating, and incorporating direct two-way feedback is critical. When leading through change, you cannot afford to have submarines out there ready to silently torpedo your vision and goals. Identify, assess and address the torpedoes. Some may be driven by fear, hype and resistance, but they may have merit and require your attention.

3. Be ruthless with your priorities and lead by example

Your team is smart and capable, but they are watching you … always. If you want your changes to stick, you must walk the walk. You will be faced with enticing squirrels and shiny objects that pull your attention in different directions. You will have excuses and reasons to lower the priority of your initiative. If it is truly important you must focus on it and put your attention to it. Your team will see this. If you don’t give your full attention to the change, don’t expect your team to either.

4. Be patient and flexible, but firm.

Change is hard no matter what your level is.  Sometimes you will need to make tough decisions.  Some folks may not be able to make the transition - be willing to let them go. Weigh your team’s feedback, adapt your plan if necessary, be humble and forgiving when mistakes are made, but be steadfast in your resolve and enforce consequences for those who choose not to adapt.

Change takes time so, as a leader, you must personally nurture it until it takes hold. Changes will take twists and turns, some good and some bad. When your team asks you for decisions and direction, drop everything to listen carefully and respond. How they choose to do something may not be exactly how you would do it – but let them figure out their path and own their plans, as long as the end result is what you want it to be.

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