IT Leaders: Grow A Pair

Business management author Larry Winget urges IT leaders to stop whining and deal with more matters themselves.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

November 26, 2013

7 Min Read
Winget: "We're the victimhood society, with very few plans."

At the recent Fusion IT Service Management conference, I caught up with keynote speaker Larry Winget, author of Shut Up, Stop Whining and Get a Life, and most recently, Grow a Pair. Despite the over-the-top titles of his books, Winget impressed me with his sensible and actionable advice. We could all do a lot worse than to shut up, stop whining, and focus back on the basics of IT service delivery.

What follows are excerpts of our conversation.

InformationWeek: In your keynote address, you said: "If you don't plan on messing up, you don't plan on doing anything. Admit it, fix it and move on." What do you say to IT leaders who insist on a quality-assurance plan to make sure that the team never messes up?

Winget: I'd say that's an unrealistic goal for anybody, regardless of what their title is. Everybody messes up. Everything goes wrong. If you don't plan for failure, you're an idiot. You always need a Plan B. You always need a backup.

[Positive change means challenging the status quo. Read IT Service Management Isn't Happyland.]

InformationWeek: I'm interested in what you said during your talk about "the idiot who said to put employees first." But in your book, you describe the need to have "a pair" even with customers, refusing to put up with bad customer behavior, like paying late or disrespecting your employees. What's the difference?

Winget: We teach people how to treat us. And when it comes to customers, if you allow them to pay you late, you've taught them that's OK, so you're nurturing bad customers. Do you really want to surround yourself with bad customers? We need to very clearly communicate with people -- and I think lack of communication is the No. 1 problem we have in business and life anyway -- that "this is how we do business, this is what we expect from you, and as long as we both understand that going in, we'll be OK." In terms of putting employees first, it's just stupid, really. You put customers first. Employees are an expense; customers are revenue. You take care of revenue first. If you don't take care of the revenue side, you're not going to have any money, any profitability, to pay your expense side.

InformationWeek: So when, then, should you hold a customer accountable for treating an employee badly?

Winget: Well, I think that you have to stand up and demand respect. It's not about employees, it's about human beings deserving to be respected. I don't let anybody disrespect anybody else, because human beings deserve better than that, and so it's just a matter of being the right kind of human being. You ought to speak up for yourself, and you ought to speak up for others who aren't willing to speak up, don't know how, or can't.

InformationWeek: Today you pooh-poohed passion. But what if someone is self-reliant, works hard, and is really excellent. Does passion matter in that case?

Winget: You know, I think passion might just be the thing that kind of puts you over the edge from a competitive standpoint. We have way too many people, though, who are relying on passion to make them successful. They believe that as long as they have passion, then they will be successful. But they don't have any business skills, don't have any customer service skills, don't have any leadership skills. They're not particularly hard workers; they're just passionate about what they do. That's just not enough. You have to also be good at what you do and willing to work hard at what you do. That's why I said hard work and excellence are the true keys to success.

InformationWeek: So what's the best way to promote employee and team self-reliance?

Winget: Again, it goes back to communication. You clearly lay out what you expect from people. You educate to make sure that employees can deliver what you expect. And then you give them the freedom to do it and fail and learn from their mistakes. At the same time that you're educating and communicating expectations, you're making sure they understand the consequences of not giving you what you expect. All of that creates a much better employee who is more self-reliant. They have the skills, and they know you trust them enough to do it. They know if they make a mistake you'll help them fix it next time. And they also know that there's a real downside, that if they keep screwing up they might not be there anymore. All that's very fair, and it creates a much better employee.

InformationWeek: In your book, you ask people to "be a citizen with a pair, to change the world by acting when others won't, to stop being sheeple." Is that also true of the workplace?

Winget: Absolutely. We need to have a pair in all situations. Having a pair is not what's going on between your legs. It's what's going on between your ears. It's about understanding who you are, what you believe, what you stand up for, speak up for, and stand up against and speak up against. We all need to do the right thing. Period. The right thing in business is to treat the customers well, take care of them, make sure that you deliver everything.

I have one rule in life. It's my No. 1 rule: Do what you said you would do, when you said you would do it, the way you said you would do it. That's what people want from us in our families and in our businesses and in society. We have too many people who make a deal, talk a good game, go back on the deal, and then blame someone else for the problem. It's really a very simple concept, a concept that we've lost along the way.

We're the victimhood society, with very few plans. We let life come to us, and then we complain when it doesn't happen in the way we wanted. We have an expectation of somebody coming to the rescue. That's not going to work out very well for any of us.

InformationWeek: I frequently hear from IT leaders that they're not well-funded enough or well-understood enough for IT to be effective. I hear: "The CEO doesn't really understand technology and how important it is." I'm guessing that you think that's the IT leader's fault. I know you're not an IT guy, but in general, what can leaders at large organizations do about being underfunded and misunderstood?

Winget: [Laughter] You know, there's an old, old saying among motivational circles that when you miss the target, never in history has it been the target's fault. And so when you look back and you say, "They don't understand me," you haven't made yourself understood. It's your fault. "I'm underfunded and they don't understand me." At some point that starts to sound like whining.

First of all, nobody cares if you have problems. They have their own crap to deal with. Second, if you're whining, you're wallowing in the problem and playing the victim. Get over it and take action to correct the situation, whatever it is. If you're taking action, you can't whine. If you're whining, you can't take action. It's one or the other.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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