CTO at the U.S. Census Bureau, Avi Bender considers motivating people to be a key component of his job. He believes the best way of motivating a highly skilled workforce is to fashion an environment for innovation.
In the past, Bender has held executive positions in both government and commercial organizations, steering IT strategy and change management. In his current role, he oversees the design and implementation of the enterprise architecture, IT governance and the Census innovation program.
Since much of his job involves leading people to solve business problems through technology, we thought he could share a few insights on such questions as: What are some of the best ways of stimulating creativity? How do you find the right way forward? What does it take to get people to move in the same direction? Is leadership innate or can it be learned?
The Empathetic Leader and Collective Epiphanies
Bender acknowledges that when leading people, one should try to drive measureable results and outcomes. This is especially true in the U.S. Census Bureau, an organization geared up to generate statistics. But a leader should never forget the intangibles—the value that can't be measured. That’s why innovation needs to be orchestrated through a common denominator of trust.
“Clearly a leader has to be a strategic visionary,” says Bender. “But he or she also has to be empathetic. Right now we’re in very difficult economic times. Budgets are being cut, resulting in fewer resources. Competitive pressures are more intense, so people are feeling a lot of stress. They need leaders to provide a sense of direction, but also to bring them together and promote collaboration.”
Bender thinks that although his title is Chief Technology Officer, the outcome of his work is more along the lines of Chief Transformation Officer. He sees a major part of his job as getting everyone on the same page to innovate; and he defines innovation as “the process by which we collectively question how we do business today so that we can transform the organization together tomorrow.”
“A leader needs to have some empathy to do this,” Bender says. “I don’t mean feeling sorry for people, but a certain sensitivity. It’s more a question of listening to people and understanding their emotional needs. There may be different schools of thought on leadership, but to me, a leader can’t come across as autocratic or authoritative. That kind of image won’t help you rally the troops.”
According to Bender, a leader needs to ensure the organization doesn’t develop silos that limit the ability to think and act creatively. You need to build trust through partnerships that are genuine and based on mutual respect with a focus on the mission.
Bringing people together involves rallying the business units around specific problems the organization is facing. What exactly those problems are must be discovered collectively; and once you’ve identified them, a leader needs to use his or her skills to galvanize the troops and get them to focus on solving just the most important problems.
“Leaders who have a very good skill in doing this have fine-tuned the art of the collective epiphany,” says Bender. “You may walk into a meeting with a hypothesis or assumption. You have an idea of what needs to be done, but you don’t have everyone on the same page. You could specifically tell them this is the problem we’re facing. What are we going to do about that? Or you can have a dialogue in a meeting, and through this dialogue you have the collective epiphany, where everybody comes together and recognizes the problem as a group.