Building Pillars of Success on a Foundation of Failures
By Randall N. Spratt
As the days fly by toward my retirement later this year, I’ve spent some time reflecting on my 40-year career in information technology. It feels like just yesterday I was receiving my diploma from the University of Utah, eager to jump into my career and make my mark. As college grads begin to enter the workforce, I hope that sharing my path and insights may help them build the foundation of their own leadership aspirations.
I started my technology career as a junior Fortran 77 programmer. I was good — I mean really good. I could write 10,000 lines of code without ever writing down an idea. I could produce a bug-free, error-free compile the first time. I was so good that I was quickly promoted to manager. However, it turned out that being a good programmer did not mean that I was a good manager.
On the brink of retirement, when I look back at my career, I realize that I built pillars of success on a foundation of failures. In my first management position, as a programmer, I would tell everybody how to program. When they failed, I would just do it for them.
I found myself working harder and being less effective because I wasn’t managing — I was doing. Somewhere along those first few management jobs, I had my first ah-ha moment: it was my job to deploy resources to help people do their jobs, not to tell or simply do.
Strong leaders know when to let go. They are effective in sharing a common vision with others and they make conscious — and sometimes difficult — decisions about what they do with their time.
As a programmer, I had 100 percent control over what I did at work. Every single line of code came out of my hand. No one else had anything to do with whether or not the program worked. Now, as a CIO and CTO, I have absolutely no control over anything. It has been a steady process of learning to relinquish control and replace it with influence and coaching while providing opportunities to collaborate as a team.
It took me some time to realize this, but as soon as I did, it immediately strengthened my management skills and things got a lot easier. Eventually, I began to spend more of my time traveling to our customers’ locations to install laboratory information systems. While on site, I gained a better understanding of the customer’s needs. I realized that what I was installing wasn’t necessarily what our customers wanted. To help solve this problem, I wrote more code. I felt that I knew what the end users wanted better than anyone else in my own company.
Once again, I began to fail because I took my eye off of the job of management. I was now a manager of managers. My job was to make sure that our customers were well served and that their voice was heard. The answer wasn’t to write more code — the answer was to relay information gleaned from the customer to the groups I managed so that we shared a common vision, a common set of goals, and a common understanding about what we were trying to accomplish for the customer.
It was very time consuming. The more responsibility I got, the more work there was to do, the more people there were to talk to, the more relationships there were to build, the more details there were to cover, the more people there were to appraise, the more raises there were to give. Everything took more and more time.
This led to my second ah-ha moment: work is part of life but, for some people, work is life. My career and leadership path would depend on how well I knew myself and how I decided to spend my time.
No matter where we are in our careers, we all have one thing in common — we have only 24 hours in every day. No more, no less. After choosing to spend some number of those hours asleep, our paths diverge. We choose when we wake up and we decide what to do once we’re awake. Some of us wake up earlier and choose to go running, while others start later and sit with the paper and coffee. Some fire up email, some talk to a spouse or a friend. But each one of us makes choices about how to use our time.
At that point in my career, I discovered I would never understand the term work-life balance. It is not about balance, it’s about choices, decisions, and how you choose where to spend your 24 hours. Sooner or later you are going to be faced with tradeoffs and decisions. You can’t be a top developer or a CIO of a company and think that you’re still going to service every hobby, every person, and every relationship in your life in the same way.
I created the time to be a leader in my field and I often had to give things up. Throughout the years, I gave up sports and many hobbies. As I began to have children, I chose to spend more time with my family and gave up time with friends. These choices were made consciously, with a deep knowledge of myself and a realization that although I was letting go of some things, I was gaining others.
As I look back at my career, I can recall many choices — some lucky, some wise, some painful, and some necessary. Writing code was easy — just me and the keyboard. The results spoke for themselves. Cultivating the skills to become a leader was much more subtle and nuanced, but in many respects, far more rewarding.
Randy Spratt is CIO and CTO of McKesson Corporation.