First Person: George Westerman, author of "Leading Digital"

Kirsten Soelling

George Westerman

George Westerman

George Westerman has to be one of my favorite interviews I didn't actually do. 
 
I was unlucky with laryngitis and instead settled for listening to the rollicking conversation between Westerman and a few of my Sappington colleagues.  
 
It's a funny thing to listen in on the conversations of others. What set out to be a discussion about the evolving role of technology in business, instead struck me as an inspiring reflection on the humanity required to lead change.
 
Westerman has been seeking a more human element in technology since the start of his career as an engineer in the 1980s. "I really wanted to do robots. And robots, when I finally got to work with them, were just wildly boring," he said. He moved on to work with radar, but when the company won a contract that Westerman would work on for the next fifteen years, he quit. 
 
There's a spirit of adventure that brightly colors the way Westerman talks about both his personal and professional pursuits. He's on what might be his fourth career, as a Principal Research Scientist for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, after a few "major switches." His recent advice to his teenage son, who is starting to look at colleges: "The only wrong choice is to do something you don't love."
 
I don't doubt that Westerman follows his own advice. He runs every day, holds an MBA and a doctorate in Leadership and Innovation, delights in his two kids, has co-authored three books, is deeply in love with his wife, and teaches. Westerman's happiness is a fascinating path he described as "all kinds of planned and unplanned things that just seemed to work out."
 
What's working out for Westerman right now is his role as a sort of emissary between tech and business, two worlds that often persist in remaining separate despite an obvious need for cooperation. Although CEOs and boards of directors have greater interest and involvement in the technology conversations that were once left to the CIOs, it still seems one directional.  "I'm going to a lot of conversations where the CIO is not invited," said Westerman, who is surprised how often it happens. "My first response is that you need to have these people involved."
 
Leaders in IT should learn the business side, just as business leaders ought to spend time talking to IT. "It does take work on both sides," he said. I appreciated this hint at the value of empathy in leaders, something on which Westerman would continue to expand later in the conversation: "The truly great leaders did not get there by luck," he said. "They're really good at shaping a conversation and getting people to join in on the cause."
 
The cause, whatever it may be, requires a vision. In the particular case of the cause of digital transformation, the vision must be about driving change. It's an aspirational goal that helps people understand where you're going and offers an idea of how to get there. "If you can be specific, people will line up behind your vision and help you work to get there," said Westerman.
 
Of course, change will encounter resistance. As Machiavelli said, you can expect aggressive opposition from people who anticipate harm from the new order, and lukewarm support from those who may be helped by it. As a result, Westerman warned, you may be fighting a battle alone.
 
On this point, Westerman dived deeper. He believes the core issue is that people need to understand their role and how they can contribute—inclusion will help to diminish fear. The idea that shared responsibility or accountability to a vision could make or break its success lingered with me. I was fascinated by the choice Westerman and his co-authors made to not use the word communication, instead selecting engagement because of its element of participation and commitment. "Help your employees to buy into the vision and take some ownership," he said.
 
Change is a very human process, though Westerman may not have said so directly: "A lot of people are highly motivated by meaning… Find some way to link into what motivates them and use that to help them move forward." 
 
Westerman shared an MIT model of three basic approaches to driving change: rational, emotional, and political. The rational story promotes the business case for change. The emotional story, what he called "hearts and minds," is told through a cultural lens. The political approach is about power – who has it, who gets it, and who loses it. Even though change may start as a rational conversation, that's not always how decisions are made: "Sometimes you just need power to make it happen."  
 
And more often than not, I think, you need hearts and minds.
 

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Kirsten Soelling
Contributor

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