Leadership by the book

DOD’s Dave Wennergren spreads a gospel of trust, information sharing and enlightened management through selective reading

Federal managers who have attended at least one presentation by Dave Wennergren, deputy chief information officer of the Defense Department, know he will most likely also recommend a book from which he believes information technology managers and leaders will benefit. FCW’s Mary Mosquera spoke recently with Wennergren about his penchant for sharing good management books.  

FCW: How have the books you have recommended helped you in your position?

Wennergren: While CIOs can often feel like they’re alone on a windy corner, there are actually lots of other people working on similar issues. Understanding best practices, successful management approaches and new ideas can inspire you, help set a coherent course, avoid unnecessary pitfalls and deliver better results. Even just talking about what you’ve read and learned helps build relationships, heightens trust, and aligns behaviors and expectations in an organization. You’re better able to do your job, and your team is confident, inspired and ready to move forward.

FCW: How did you become so interested in not only reading management and other helpful books but also championing them to your co-workers, other federal IT executives and audiences?

Wennergren: CIOs must be adept at addressing statutory and regulatory responsibilities, meeting customer needs and ensuring a strategic vision for the future. A key requirement in these activities is to successfully address cultural change. If you’re not staying abreast about what great minds are saying about leadership, innovation and change management, then you are doing a disservice to both yourself and your organization. Leaders have to read, and they have an obligation to instill a culture of continuous learning in their organizations.

When I was the Department of the Navy CIO, I started a leadership forum called Expanding Boundaries, which I have now continued in my DOD job as Expanding Horizons. The idea is to get the leadership team together once every couple of months, read a good book and then discuss how we could apply the book, to our work and our lives. It’s been a great way to understand the art of the possible and best practices, but even more importantly, it has helped to align the leadership team, improve trust and serve an idea creation engine as we strategize about next steps in our information transformation work.

FCW: How do you find time in your busy life to read, and where do you like to read management books?

Wennergren: I’m not a fast reader, so it’s important for me to read reviews, listen to other leaders and discuss what’s on the market so I can prioritize my time on good books that will make a difference. I’m not that organized a person, so I don’t have a reading ritual. I do have to travel a lot, and airline travel is clearly a time that you can focus on reading. The dirty little secret about me is that having a structure in my life is good for me. The fact that we do Expanding Horizons I hope is a good leadership opportunity for my staff, but it’s also good for me because it keeps me on a schedule of knowing that I’m going to have a book discussion with my teammates, so I better prepare if I haven’t read the book. It helps me have discipline.  

FCW: How do you share your book recommendations through Expanding Horizons?

Wennergren: The directors and executives that work for me do Expanding Horizons five or six times a year. After we read the book, we have a professional facilitator who does the actual session. They shepherd the daylo ng discussion with my team, and sometimes we’ll bring in the author, or somebody who is an exemplar. We take a book and look at how that applies to what we do and how we can use it as we shape what’s important to us now. 

Over the course of the day, you’re doing more than talking about the book. You’re working on what are the applications of the ideas from the book to the actual work projects that are your priorities of the moment. We’ll review where we are in our continuous learning and leadership development, then talk about themes of the book, do some applications work about how themes about creating a performance-based culture actually apply to the projects we have going on.

FCW: How do these books pertain to federal IT?

Wennergren: Some of these books have continuing themes for us, writ large for the information community. I think themes, such as alignment — are you aligned toward the same vision? — and the theme of execution, Larry Bossidy’s “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done,” are really performance-oriented and results-oriented. Those are things that are important across the organization, just as in “The Speed of Trust” book, these are the costs that you pay for your part of a low-trust organization. When I get a chance to speak with information leaders in DOD and externally, I often mention books that I think will be good reads for them to work through their own leadership challenges.

FCW: Has any one book made a difference?

Wennergren: There are 10 books that are crucial for information leaders, public or private. They’re a good set that talk about several issues that affect us all as information leaders right now. As you move from this world of stand-alone information systems and solutions to a world that is Web-based and very connected, you have to think about solutions in terms of being part of a bigger enterprise. That’s why “The Power of Alignment” is such an important book. It talks about how you can be sure that you’re aligned organizationally and across organizational boundaries.

The alignment book is about creating the strategy and the shared vision; the execution book is, having created that vision, what are you doing to measure the progress of your plans and make sure you’re heading in the right direction and getting where you want to go. The execution book talking about performance management is obviously a crucial subject.

Stephen Covey’s book is a fascinating read because trust is really at the heart of so much of what we’re doing. In “The Speed of Trust,” he makes a case for how the absence of trust in an organization is measurable in terms of costs and time to get things done.

This Web-based, information-sharing world is all about trust. In the past, a local command would build a local network and local applications and own it all themselves and do it all themselves. In a Web-based world, you have a single authoritative data source, a Web service that’s available that everybody’s going to use. You have to have trust with other organizations if you’re going to be able to get out of the mind-set that you have to have personal control over all your IT assets.

When you think about innovations, like cloud computing, where you buy the capacity that you need on demand and the software isn’t sitting on your local computer or local server, it’s all about getting out of the mind-set that you have to own the box and getting into the mind-set that it’s a utility, like electricity. 

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