He ain't no Oprah; but he's definitely a force to reckon with. At Aflac, at least, he's the senior vice president and CIO-and, like Oprah, he likes books. In fact, Gerald Shields likes books so much he established a lunchtime book club several years ago for his entire IT leadership team. Every week, some 50 or so Aflac IT executives, directors and managers attend the one-and-a-half-hour meeting."It's more than just a book club," says Shields. "It's a way for me to invest in our people." Shields has been CIO at Aflac since last July. And, before that, since 2002, he was vice president, information technology-enterprise services at the Columbus, Ga.-based insurer best known for its lovable quacking duck.
The fact that the book club is an investment in people becomes clear when you look at the reading list (see "Gerald's Reading List," page 24). No mindless romance novels or escapist thrillers here. These are serious, thought-provoking business books, including the long-time best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Shields selects each book because he believes it can serve as a catalyst for discussion about what it means to be a leader.
"Several years ago, I had an epiphany," he says. "I was the chief technology officer at a smaller company ... and it dawned on me that I no longer built computer systems. I realized I now built IT professionals. And my job is to build the IT organization-and the IT professionals who build the systems."
And what better way to do that than ... to start a book club, right? People have questioned why Shields thinks a book club is a good way to develop IT leaders, he admits. Why not stick with advanced technical skills training, standard management seminars and good, old-fashioned compensation programs?
"I've had some discussion about that," he says, "and I say, 'We're business people in the business of technology. There is not a single thing that we do [in IT] that isn't about people. It's people doing the job. It's about people giving services and solutions to other people who use them. It's about solving problems for people.'"
Technical training, management seminars and compensation are all included in IT professional development at Aflac, he says. "But it's just as important to encourage leaders to think about how they are influencing the organization."
And that's exactly what he does in his book club meetings. "We'll take a book like The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and read a chapter or two that week," says Shields. "Then I stand up and lead the discussion."
Not surprisingly, with various levels of managers in the same room, lower level managers were initially reluctant to participate in "open" debates on leadership during those first few meetings in 2002. And, the upper level managers in the room were more than comfortable taking the lead, according to Shields.
"I remember the first time I went before the group and said, 'What do you think about this idea in this book-do you agree or disagree?' One of the officers said, 'We agree,'" says Shields. "And I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't talk for everyone in the room. You can agree, but everyone is equal in here, and everyone's opinion matters.'"
In fact, suspending the normal ranks of hierarchy has been absolutely essential to building the trust that Shields insists is necessary to facilitate learning. "I tell people, 'This is rankless and nameless. We all walk in that door as peers-whether you're a supervisor, a vice president, a manager or a senior manager. We are all peers on this journey of leading the organization."
Easy to say, but Shields backs up his rhetoric by insisting that no one receives negative repercussions as a result of anything they've shared during these "training" sessions, as he calls them.
"I tell [my direct reports] that I never want to see anything on a performance appraisal that indicates anything like: 'I know you don't buy into the chain of command because of your comments in the training,'" he says. "And I never talk to any of my direct reports about anything they say in those sessions that differs from my view."
A lively debate
In fact, Shields encourages a lively debate. People don't have to agree with him or the author, he says. And, if someone disagrees with him, he might say, "That's an interesting perspective. I hadn't thought about it that way. You're probably right in certain situations, and I'm probably right in certain situations."
Occasionally, Shields even openly disagrees with an idea someone has suggested, Shields says. But he explains his logic through personal anecdotes, and he never places blame.
"Real stories break down the barriers," he says. "But you never want to say, 'Greg, last week you messed up on this.'"
He does admit his own mistakes, however. "It's not uncommon for me to say, 'Let me tell you why I believe that idea won't work: One time I handled a situation that way, and here was the ill effect of that. I realized I was wrong, and that's why I think this other way is a safer bet.'"
Overall, says Shields, "I talk very candidly. I'm hoping I'm more like a peer in these discussions than a boss."
It's an inspiring idea. But does it work?
Absolutely, says Shields, offering an example. The group was reading Danger in the Comfort Zone, a book by Judith Bardwick that describes how organizations can be measured on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is operating in an "entitlement" mentality and 10 is operating on fear, or a "paralysis" mentality.
Shields divided the groups into teams of people who normally didn't work together. Their assignment: Answer the questions: Where does Aflac stand on that scale from 1 to 10, why do you think that, and what steps should the organization take to either stay in a good place or adjust?
"We had 20 presentations, and everyone had a chance to talk and ask questions about it," says Shields. "And out of that project came about a dozen items that we changed in processes, procedures and the way we handle situations."
A common philosophy
He provides another example of how reading these books is improving IT leadership at Aflac, which, incidentally, is one of 100 best places to work for IT professionals according to Computerworld.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey describes the concept of an "emotional bank account" in relationships. When we "take" from another person, we withdraw from the relationship bank account, and when we "give" to that person, we make a deposit. And, like a real bank account, withdrawals should not exceed deposits.
"It's not uncommon for someone to say, 'Gerald, here's what were going to do in the claims department,'" says Shields. "And I'll say, 'OK, but there's not a lot of business value in that [investment], is there?' And they'll say, 'Not really, but Gerald, we need to make some deposits with the department because last week we had to make a big withdrawal.' And I'll say, 'You're right. Good thinking.'"
In this way, the book club discussions tie his team together on philosophy, he says. They also keep the IT leaders at Aflac on a life-long journey of learning.
"Here's the deal," says Shields. "I want people reading. We are professionals, and we need to be reading and studying. We need to have a life-long learning mentality."
GERALD'S READING LIST
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen R. Covey)
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (John C. Maxwell, Zig Ziglar)
- Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (Larry Bossidy)
- Zapped: The Lightening of Empowerment (William Byham, Jeff Cox)
- Who Moved My Cheese? (Spencer Johnson, Kenneth H. Blanchard)
- The Successful Manager's Handbook (Susan H. Gebelein)
- The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader (John C. Maxwell)
- Danger in the Comfort Zone (Judith M. Bardwick)
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