Multi-taskers: How 5 busy CIOs get through their day

5 busy government tech leaders share their secrets for getting the most out of every day

The pace of government life is accelerating, and that’s particularly true for executives who oversee agency IT operations. The around-the-clock expectations for government services double for the people who need to make sure those services stay up and running.

However, coping with those pressures while making sure their organizations stay productive is an individual endeavor for government CIOs. There’s no formula to ensure success in running IT organizations in what are usually different agency cultures.

The following series of stories offers a peek into the working lives of five top executives who share unique but telling snapshots of how they approach their days. Their backgrounds and responsibilities run the gamut and include a military leader in a time of war and the head of a much smaller office that’s nevertheless in the thick of a frenetic period of health reform.

As told to Brian Robinson.

Dr. Theresa Ann Cullen, CIO and director of the Office of IT, Indian Health Service, Health and Human Services Department

I call our IT organization the little engine that could because we work in a somewhat fiscally and human capital-austere environment. We’ve learned how to be agile and how to multitask.

We oversee services in 35 states, including Alaska. So my day starts at 7 a.m. and usually doesn’t end until around 8 p.m. I work long hours, but I’m a workaholic, so that’s OK.

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I try to protect my mornings so I can come in and clean up what might have happened overnight and to work on documents. I try not to schedule meetings before 11 a.m. However, though our headquarters is in Rockville, Md., most of the work is done in the Southwest in our Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz., offices, so it’s not uncommon for us to schedule meetings until 6 or 7 p.m. East Coast time.

I rarely do ad hoc meetings. If you’re not in my calendar, you probably won’t get talked to. I never answer my cell phone, though I always check my messages. Most people know to contact me by e-mail if they need me to respond immediately. I use auto preview in my e-mail, so you’ve got just the first three lines to catch my attention.

However, I do practice an open-door policy. Those mornings when I’m in the Washington office, everybody can come in as they feel they need to. When I’m in Albuquerque and Tucson, I set aside a day or half-day when people can come see me, and I walk around a lot to interact with people.

I manage information coming in to me based on the person and the team and their strengths and weaknesses. I have parts of my organization that I get a monthly dashboard from, and that’s it. I know they’re good, and I know their dashboard is accurate. Other teams I’m in the weeds on — projects that are at risk, that seem to be having trouble with their earned value and so on.

We work hard, but I feel that I’m really lucky. We do stuff that matters and that changes people's lives. Personally, I’m a driven person, but now I realize it’s more that I’m driven to make the world a better place and being able to say I lived a life worth living.

Lt. Gen. William Lord, chief of warfighting integration and CIO, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force

My day begins at 5.30 a.m. when, depending on what my schedule is for the rest of the day, I exercise. Militarily, that’s absolutely necessary for physical combat but, I think, also for combat inside a bureaucracy. I get to the office by around 7 a.m. I leave at around 5:30 or 6 p.m., mainly because my wife will otherwise beat on me about letting my front-office staff leave so they can go home to their families.

By rule, people have to leave me alone until 8 a.m. so I can set my brain for the day. Other than that, I keep it fairly unscripted. I’ve found as a senior leader in this business that I want to be more flexible to allow the people who need to come running in with their hair on fire to be able to do that.

I keep an open-door policy. I’ve been careful not to shoot the messenger, and that has led to a more open environment where people aren’t afraid to express opinions. And we’ve gotten some pretty neat innovation going as a result. One of those is the implementation of telecommuting for some of my workers. So we’re beginning to let the technology work for us instead of us working for it.

I’ve changed the way I manage over the years. As a Myers-Briggs ISTJ (Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging) type, you have a list, you quickly proceed to the list, you come to a conclusion and that’s the end of it, and you get on with things. I’ve forced myself to allow divergent thinking to go on in meetings, to allow a diverse set of solutions to be offered. Then you go back and converge on the final solution instead of jumping straight to it.

I finally figured it out about 10 years ago, as a result of some professional military education courses I took. It didn’t come naturally at first, but it does now, which you would not think of for an ISTJ. I should have done it a long time ago.

Casey Coleman, CIO, General Services Administration

During the week, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. and look at my BlackBerry right away and also at the news feeds on Twitter and some of the electronic media. I’ll head for the office at about 7 a.m. and spend about 30 minutes there if I can, looking at the headlines and any news clips that pertain to GSA.

There’s no set schedule to my days. I try to block off time when I’m not in meetings to catch up on e-mails or to read longer articles or just to think about things more strategically. What I’ve learned about myself, however, is that I’m not good at having a meeting, having a 30-minute break and then going to another meeting. I can’t use that break productively. So I try to schedule meetings as close together as I can, to free up larger blocks of time that I can use in a more thoughtful way.

I’m an assiduous list-maker, and I get a lot of psychic value out of marking things off my list. I use a spiral notebook for that. But I also love technology. I’m a real gadget freak, and I’m always looking for ways it can help us be more productive.

E-mail is overrated as a communications tool. At the office, we rely a lot on instant messaging. We’re logged on to it all day. I also have a blog that I use to communicate to our entire team, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. I find I’m more comfortable with reaching out to people and for them to reach out to me when the occasion arises. I pretty much have an open-door policy.

I’ll do some work on the weekends, but I don’t devote a lot of intellectual effort to it. I do need to teach myself to disengage and rely on my team more. As a test case, my husband and I took a week in the Caribbean this past summer, and I left the BlackBerry behind. I can’t remember the last time I did that. But everything was fine, everyone did a fabulous job. There was absolutely no need for me to be connected.

Roger Baker, CIO, Veterans Affairs Department

The day for me starts at around 6:30 a.m. When I get the bus for my commute, I’m usually buried in my BlackBerry. One of the reasons I take mass transit is that I get about two hours of extra work done every day by working on the BlackBerry. When I get back to the house in the evening, there’s usually nothing left to do on it.

My BlackBerry style is akin to driving along a country dirt road, where if you get up enough speed you’ll just skim over the top of the ruts instead of falling in between them. I’ve never figured out how many hundreds [of] e-mails an hour I can do that way.

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve gotten a long way away from voice. Plenty of times the personal touch is required, but from my standpoint, I’d rather walk down the corridor and see the person than call them on the phone.

I work on the weekends only when I must, and [even] then I do it kicking and screaming. I was one of those extremely hard-driven, up-and-coming MBA types. About the time my wife and I started having kids, I decided I’d rather spend my extra time at home than at work. I think that also focused me on working smarter, not harder.

I have a whiteboard on the wall with between 16 and 30 items on it. If I get a moment, I’m looking at that board to see what I can spend some time on, now that I do have a moment. Also, my meetings last just half an hour. People know that and know they have to get right to the point.

This is not a high-stress job. When you’ve run a company and you know your decisions are going to cause people to potentially lose their jobs, that is much more stressful to me than anything that occurs here. Realistically, I have confidence in two things: I know what I’m doing, and if I’m not doing a good job, the president will fire me. I can live with both of those.

Alan Constantian, director of the Information Services Design and Development Group, Office of Information Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Ever since I’ve been in this position, since the summer of 2007, I’ve assembled my team of managers and we’ve looked at the fiscal year behind us to see what we’ve accomplished and then we look at the big things on the horizon that we want to tackle for the next year. Those are the basis of my performance plan, and they then become the elements for my managers and their staff.

It works really well. We like to have 10 or 12 high-profile things in that plan. I have a big whiteboard that’s on the wall right in front of me, and I see that every day. It changes pretty much only once a year, except for updates. Even though the daily tasks or objectives ebb and flow and I check things off in my calendar, I’m always looking at what I promised the agency I would get done during the year. It keeps us on a constant track without the need for a lot of micromanagement.

I try to create both formal and informal settings where people can interact with their colleagues and get to know them better. I spent 21 years in the Air Force, and you always depended on your wing person, whether you were a flier or not. You knew you had to depend on others in your team, and I try to encourage that here.

I do take vacations, though usually not more than a work week at a time because of the rapid pace that things go at. But I also see vacations as an opportunity for professional development for my deputy, who has to step up in my absence. In fact, she’s becoming a group director in a different component of the agency, and I’d like to think that giving her the opportunity when I’ve been on vacation has helped her get that job. It works for me, too, because I have a restful vacation.

I don’t worry a lot, but if I do have concerns, I reach out and share with others. It’s one of the best de-stressors I know. Don’t worry alone.


About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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