Ex-CIO Dick Dooley is the closest thing IS has to a spiritual leader


How has the typical IS leaders changed during your career?

Some of the changes have been things I was into early.  I was always a closet academic:  interested in the social and team aspects, the management process and leadership; developing the people.  Today we’re much more focused on that and if you’re not, you’re out.  I was more political, more outward looking, more attuned to relationships and business needs.  I was criticized at the time for not being vertically grounded.  It was technical competence first and last and in the middle, too.  Today if you’re not outward looking and don’t have relationships with other turf owners, you don’t play.

Why did you start the Regional Legacy Forums?

There was a screaming need for it.  Before all the downsizing there were a lot of Dutch uncles.  I got more mentoring than I thought I needed.  Today almost nobody has that luxury.  With thin staffs and people so overcommitted, the idea of helping develop high potential people is almost non existent.  People haven’t got any time.

When they stripped out middle management they stripped out the mentors?

They stripped out all those guys who took you to lunch and said you’re talking too much at meetings.  We used to get a lot of that in the job.  Now there’s nothing going on internally that’s even close to that.  But there’s still a need.  People need to grow up, but you do it on your own or you fail.

Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?

The Chairman of the First National Bank of Chicago taught me communication, a positive attitude and speed.  My boss, who was between me and him, taught me focus and commitment:  what it means to keep your word and follow through.  My wife does a lot of that in a slightly different mode.  It’s clearly more impactive and insightful but also possibly more annoying because it’s so close.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the forums?

Capacities.  Think about talent or potential.  People used to be hired for that.  Further down the curve is skills.  Maybe you really can do something now.  Still further down is competency.  People try to test for that or build job descriptions around that.  Further down is capacities:  They’re broader, deeper and transportable.  It’s like four stops on a train track.  For a systems person the second stop might be knowing Lotus Notes.  The third would be proficiency in several suites of software applications.  When you reach capacity you can understand software packages quickly.

Why is capacity so important?

When I was growing up if you were world class in IMS you were practically guaranteed for 10 years — maybe life.  Today to be world class at Lotus Notes doesn’t guarantee you anything.  The half life for the skill level is months.  You can’t really count on skills and competencies today; you have to look for capacities:  learning to learn.  Leadership training is learning to learn; learning to change, to communicate, to build relationships.  It’s deeper, broader and transportable.  It’s not job related but it’s required for any work.

How do you teach that?

Our architecture is based on all the learning platforms:  listening, watching, talking, arguing, playing.  The teacher is a facilitator.  Once you get to a certain level they will learn from each other.  It happens all the time naturally, but most of the structure we put on teams destroys it or gets in its way.  The group discovery process is very elusive, but when they get enough trust, knowledge of each other, willingness to learn, they do a lot of it themselves.  The design is multiple meetings (from six to ten) with maybe six weeks in between to experiment and let things soak in.  A big part of the Legacy Forums is discovering who you are because you can’t lead others until you have your own act under control.  Over fifteen months you’ve got enough time to change if you want to.

What would I notice about someone who has been through a Legacy Forum?

Someone who has been through tries harder to understand, is more tolerant of diverse ideas and has a strong sense of who they are.  You can tell by the way they approach you.  They’re not trying to put you down so they look better.  They’re trying to add to your value rather than take it away.  It shows in creativity:  frequency of thinking out of the box.  It shows in manners; protocol:  understanding that there are times to speak and not to speak; that some issues are not worth arguing about.  None of this is beyond the capacity of any human being or deeply rooted in the systems world.  You might say we’re talking about growing up.I’ve heard that the 10 objectives of the leadership forums are learn, change, challenge, fix, give back, lead, grow, create, produce, enjoy.  This sounds basically like a happiness forum or integrated human being forum.It comes down pretty close to that.  That’s a very important word:  integrated.  It’s a basic human capacity.  People say what do I care about that?  I want to get the work done.  But more work gets done by people who are integrated.  Years ago we were working alone more often; today so many things are interconnected.  The differences in people are enormous.  As we get more global and more work is networked it requires more integration.

Have you noticed changes in your audience over the past 5 years?

There’s great diversity not just in gender and race but in thought and style and culture.  There’s a tendency to go deeper and faster quicker.  In the first Legacy Forums people were walking on little cat feet at first.  Now people think this is a special opportunity and my organization may be sold before the end.  I’m going to take advantage of it.  They hit the ground running.

Are the characteristics of a successful IS leader different than in other fields?

You need to have the technology skills also.  You have to go both ways.But what about the trend to bring non-IT people in as IT managers?That’s got some value because they bring in sensitivity to the business or the marketplace, but they do have to surround themselves with technical talent or be a very quick study.  They don’t need to know the whole Swiss watch industry; they just need to know about telling time.  I once read a logic book walking across campus at Holy Cross and got a 96 on the test.  You have to be able to do that today because you almost never have time to do the whole study.What separates an IS leader from a manager?Management is a little more characterized by how and what; leadership, by what and where and when.  Leadership is a little more strategic; management, more tactical.  Leadership is through other people; management might be, but it might be direct.  Leadership tends to be much more spiritual; management, much more physical.  The two obviously overlap but at the extremes they don’t.

Should everyone learn to be a leader?

Yes.  Once you define leader in a non-positional way — leadership energy and action — then everybody is a leader for some minutes, some hours, some days every week.  Everybody needs to manage and lead in the community, in the family, when the subway gets into an accident.  That’s a responsibility everybody has.  It isn’t inherently driven by the business organization.

How can an IS manager nurture leadership among IS employees?

By setting a good example and communicating about it, making it a topic of meetings, allowing space for it.  If you crowd the whole stage with your own leadership presence there’s no room for anyone else; no whitespace. Don’t do it all yourself; allow room for someone else to get up.  Encourage people to pick up the ball and run with it.  Point out opportunities for leadership.

What is it about your own life that led you to this kind of work?

When we were kids someone sort of stole their family car and we got a flat tire.  It was terrible; we were going to get caught.  I told them what to do to change the tire.  The next day all of us thugs were standing around the street corner talking about it and someone said, “Dooley took over.”  I said, “Well, we needed to get it fixed.”  I always had that capacity.  In almost everything I’ve ever done I’ve tended to operate on that level.  If there’s no need for leadership, I move on.

What do you think is the best thing about life in IS today?

Its enormous diversity and challenge.  It’s like a field of wild flowers, or maybe plants, because there are thorns in there too.  There’s a lot going on and lots of change.  You really can’t get bored unless you work at it.  It’s very challenging and if you’re not into challenge it rolls you over.  Today in IT the challenge is almost overwhelming so if you don’t love it, it tears you apart.

I guess that’s also the worst thing about life in IS today.

That, and also that it’s radically changing and leaving people in the wake.  It’s no longer as romantic.  Thirty years ago we were the high priests.  Now it’s embedded so thoroughly in every business that a degree in computer science is like a degree in reading:  Everybody does that.  It’s difficult for people who came to IT because it was a cool place to be.  The industry has commoditized and that; left them a little empty.

Where do you go from here?

I say I’m already retired because I’m doing what I want to do.  I’m much more capable now of saying no to things that are not intriguing or challenging or fun and that interfere with a more balanced life (though people who know me well would chuckle at that).  I’m four years into Tai Chi and I don’t know it well at all.  In some ways that’s symbolic about where I am.  I really want to integrate in that Yin Yang flow way.  I do intend to live until I’m 94 and I feel I’ve got plenty to keep me busy for the next 30 years.

Are you a saint or a heretic in the IS community?

I’m sure some would say heretic because I’ve always been a radical thinker.  I have heard the phrase ‘spiritual leader’ and I actually like it.  I’d be pleased to be a spiritual leader.

This article appeared in Computerworld, June 1, 1998.
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