My Experience with the Best and the Worst CEO for Computerization


It is often the CEO who makes the difference between success and failure of a software driven transformation.

In my long career as head of IT and implementing software projects within companies, I have come across a variety of CEOs – some of them who were excellent change managers and others who were not. So, I classify all CEOs into 2 major categories – those who understand computerisation (not computers) and those who don’t. Understanding computerization for a CEO means understanding the psychology of change brought about by automation. How well he understands this determines the success or failure of software projects.

(Update: I now call this special skill as Behavioral IT™ skill. So you can classify CEOs as those having Behavioral IT skills and those without Behavioral IT skills. I define Behavioral IT skill as a special skill required by all CXOs, Department heads and top managers to manage IT-Driven Change (which is the biggest driver of organizational change today) and to succeed in an IT-Driven Corporate world. “Managers do not need IT skills, they only need Behavioral IT skills.”  Click here to know more about Behavioral IT™ and click here for top management seminar on Behavioral IT).

Whenever I speak of the role of CEOs or top managers, I always remember this CEO who was the best CXO I have worked with in my career – the best at least from computerization point of view. His name was Mr S C Jolly and he was the head of Sarawati Sugar Mill in Yamuna Nagar, (a group company of the Saraswati group consisting of a Sugar mill, heavy engineering unit ISGEC, etc. where I worked as their Group CIO/IT Head).

It was my first job as a IT Head with only 4.5 years of prior work experience, and I set up the entire IT department and was highly successful in developing and implementing complex applications (happy to share the success stories published in Computers Today and Times of India at http://pukamble.tripod.com/ct1 and http://pukamble.tripod.com/toi. The GM referred to in these articles was Mr. Jolly himself; there were no fancy designations like CEO/COO in those days!).

Mr Jolly is the best IT enabler CEO I have come across in 28 years of my IT career and 24 years as Head of IT). I hope Mr Jolly reads this. Anyone who knows him may please convey my feelings of appreciation to him. The last time I was in touch with him he was living a retired life in Delhi. (Update: This blog thankfully helped me to reconnect with him!! Read how)

And what was it that he did best to enable successful automation? You will be surprised to know – the best thing that he did was that HE DID NOT REACT. He did not react spontaneously to complaints but took a very balanced view. I was a young ‘below-30′ manager but he spent quality time with me when I used to meet him, often sharing some of his wisdom. He said that he received several complaints about computerization. Some of the users were fed up and frustrated. What was different about him (which I have rarely seen in many CXO’s I have worked with later) is that he did not immediately start blaming the computer department on hearing complaints from the IT-user departments. He said that the complaints and frustrations were not a result of any problem with technology or the tech department – they were a result of their discomfort with change and their resistance to change.

Let me paint the following scenario of an incident to illustrate what I said.

My first automation project with Mr. Jolly’s company was sugarcane farmers’ accounting solution. It was fairly complex but very successful (real success story published in Computers Today http://pukamble.tripod.com/ct1). This was because the folks from the user departments were very cooperative and mature. After completion of that project, I started the automation of the most common and relatively simple application – payroll. But unlike the first project, this simpler project provided bigger roadblocks. The HR/Admin manager was simply not able to go live with the application. As is my style, I first tried hard to persuade him and convince him that he had to drive the implementation. He had to get the master data entered and ensure its accuracy and currency. But when I realized that my persuasion was not working, I set up a meeting with the CEO, Mr Jolly. And following is the scene at the meeting.

There I was sitting in front of the CEO’s desk – a clean big table with just one Economic Times lying in one corner. By my side was the HR Manager – both of us facing the CEO. And the Manager beside me immediately took off by cursing the system, fretting and fuming and blaming the system in no uncertain terms.  He seemed to have a bagful of abuses and complaints. “Our neighboring company has been using Payroll for years and they do not face any such problems. We just don’t know how to do it…” There I was, waiting sheepishly for the worst to follow.

But I was in for a surprise!

The CEO quietly listened to all that was said. To my surprise, there was no reaction whatsoever and no expression on his face. He patiently waited for the manager to finish. When the manager was done with blurting out what he had to, lo and behold, there were no fireworks from the CEO that I was waiting for. Completely unmoved by all that was said and with no emotions on his face, all that he said was, “What next?”!!

He reviewed the immediate steps to be taken, set targets for master data correction (which, I explained, was the primary reason for all problems) and closed the meeting in a few minutes.

And believe me, it worked wonders. The payroll application soon went live!

Next day, as I sat leisurely in front of his desk, he gave me his words of wisdom.

“The HR Manager was reacting as he did,” he explained, “because he was uneasy under the impact of change, not necessarily because of any problem with the system.” These words were music to my ears!

“The frustration, anger and complaints of managers implementing a change” he continued, “have nothing to do with the technicalities of the change they are implementing, the root cause is the change itself . The managers themselves do not know that their discomfort is a result of their resistance to change, and have no relation with the issues that they complain about.”

And then came the golden words.

“I give them a patient hearing just to allow them to let off steam”, he said. “And quite often, I do nothing about it!!”

I have not heard wiser words than these from any CXO in over 20 years of my career after this incident. I have suffered from some of the worst CXO’s too – I have seen highly gullible CXOs who would believe the first guy who went and complained about computerization. And hell would fall on IT department. I often thought that if I had gone and complained first, hell would have fallen on the other guy!

Update: I now call this special skill of the CEO  as one of the many essential Behavioral IT™ skills that every CXO, department head and top manager needs to learn. “Managers do not need IT skills, they only need Behavioral IT skills.”  Click here to know more about Behavioral IT™ and click here for top management seminar on Behavioral IT.

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