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Leadership Best Practices

An Interview with Donn Westerhoff
US CENTCOM Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

Donn Westerhoff  - CENTCOM CTO

CEO Q interviewed Donn Westerhoff, the CTO of US CENTCOM about his leadership role in the organization. The interview provided some valuable insights into executive challenges, opportunities and CTO best practices.

[CEOQ]:  What are the key challenges for the CTO in a critical, complex, and global IT environment?

[Donn]: The US Central Command Area of Responsibility (AOR) stretches across more than 4.6 million square miles and 20 countries. While distance and time zone changes present difficulties in attaining real time information, the most significant challenge is that we incur continuous change. Our environment is dynamic; however, we must still remain adaptable to all planned and unplanned events. Change management is a very critical aspect in our IT service. About 80% of everything that goes wrong within a network is usually due to unscheduled or undocumented changes. In large organizations, the change management process is difficult to define and even more difficult to follow due to the continuous technology and environment changes. Change management should enable, not hinder, the organizational performance. Changes need to be handled efficiently and cannot be so arduous that it inhibits our movement forward. The key to success in change management is simplifying the process, maintaining business rigor, and automation. The objective is to establish a customer friendly process that has a positive impact on response time.

[CEOQ]: Can you tell us more about your personal challenges as a senior executive, when you first took over the CTO role?

[Donn]: In my organization, my first personal challenge has been establishing my role and responsibilities. My position is relatively new. It was put together in November of 2007, and my immediate challenge was to carve out my niche. My number one question was “what can I do to be an enabler to the people that work with me?” My job is not only to enable my workforce, but to enable the rest of the directorate to be successful. I also have to enable operations to be successful by finding the technologies, the processes, and the people to make it happen. I have to find the tools that will make their job easier and make our systems and network stable, reliable, and available.

[CEOQ]: Can you give us an example of how you used technologies or tools to help the organization succeed?

[Donn]: We are currently utilizing a web-based collaboration portal that helps to overcome distance and time zone challenges which improves communication for better decision-making. We also use a centralized network management tool to provide us with a consolidated common operating picture of the entire network to help our engineers and operators to monitor and troubleshoot the network more effectively.

[CEOQ]: In your opinion, what is the best executive leadership style for an organization like yours?

[Donn]: The servant-leadership style. As a leader, I have the responsibility by definition to accomplish the tasks and execute the will of my organization, as well as to ensure that my people are taken care of. I have an inherent responsibility to enable my people to be successful. It is my workforce that enables things to happen. Sometimes I have to compromise, and subdue my own needs in order to make others' goals my primary concern. I also have to keep my ego in check; I am not the center of the universe. So, as a leader, the more that I can do to enable my people to do their jobs, the more successful our organization will be. My style of leadership is pretty much: articulate a vision, enumerate the tasks, provide the tools, and give my people the freedom to accomplish their tasks. My role is to provide periodic guidance and knock down obstacles in their way.

[CEOQ]: What are the critical success factors for the CTO leadership in the government sector?

[Donn]: Leadership success is about vision and interpersonal relationships. There’s not one person that makes the organization successful. You need other people to work with them. The success of the leadership in any organization is completely predicated on your ability to build positive interpersonal relationships. In my particular case, I have many stakeholders and a lot of projects that I am engaged with. So I have to build consensus and collaboration to the directions that they want to go. And I have to show the benefits of each project and frame it in a win-win proposition. The second piece of that is having a vision and a direction. When asked the question, “Why do we do something?” There is an old adage that people like to say: “Because we have always done it that way!” This way of thinking is a recipe for disaster. While tradition, predictability, and consistency are important, to be competitive and a good leader in today’s IT environment you must have a vision and you must be able to take risks. It is critical to think outside the box and point to a direction that will give you an orchestrated effort to success. It is always about doing the right thing and making sure you include everybody. If I want to sum it up, as a leader you have to conceptualize, socialize, re-conceptualize, re-socialize, then implement or deploy.

[CEOQ]: What is the role of innovation in IT Management and specifically in the government sector?

[Donn]: Innovation plays an important role in organizational performance and it’s especially essential in the IT Management sector. Effective managers always look for resourceful ideas and innovative solutions to complex problems. In this economic crisis, for example, one way to overcome budget limitations is to develop the most efficient and highly skilled IT and support work force and to seek resources outside the government, such as establishing public-private partnerships. This enables expedited resolution of issues, the development of creative solutions, and meets the need of the government agencies who are asked to do more with less. Another method of innovation is recapitalization of functional assets in order to build on internal collaboration and utilize internal assets within the government.

[CEOQ]: Can you give us a specific example of a problem that you have solved in such manner?

[Donn]: We want to create a facility designed for the evaluation, engineering, testing, analysis, training, demonstration, and documentation of potential new technologies for introduction into the USCENTCOM environment. Budget is a major challenge. Thinking outside the box led us to the conclusion that we can obtain low cost resources by leveraging relationships with other divisions within our command and other military organizations that are life-cycling equipment. This also is requiring us to lean on outside resources and form partnerships to bring solutions to the problems we are facing and create a win-win proposition that enables everyone to be successful. The good news is when the facility is completed, it will have the potential to become a Command, Control, Communications, and Computer (C4) Center of Excellence which will not only serve our directorate but serve the Command and all of our coalition partners. The purpose for the C4 Center of Excellence is to provide a state of the art information sharing environment while growing into one of the premier locations for C4 collaboration, research and design development, and education. Then, we can begin tackling complex issues with our partners such as systems integration and inter-operability. Going back to your earlier question, I think one other key success factor for any CIO or CTO is to have entrepreneurial skills. Most of what I do isn't documented and charted but it is a form of building a business from within.

[CEOQ]: What are your criteria for selecting IT solutions?

[Donn]: Assured system availability, information assurance or protection, and assured content delivery are critical to our environment. We work in an environment where security will make or break you. Since our network is a heterogeneous network that is built by many organizations, our network operations are literally analogous to several different companies trying to play all together, each with different ideas and solutions which you can imagine is very difficult. From an operational perspective, the solution should be requirements driven and must validate a need for a particular capability. From an investment perspective, we select and evaluate IT products or solutions that are cost-effective, intuitive, and useful. The product or solution must enhance workflow and resolve a technical issue in order to satisfy the needs of the end user. There are many vendors that provide potential solutions and we employ a vendor agnostic process that allows us to select and evaluate how each IT solution fits and integrates with other systems in the network. The Chief Technology Office must look at each vendor critically from a view of functionality, capability, long-term sustainability, and total cost of ownership. In a non-profit organization, the return is not necessarily monetary. For us, the return on investment, or ROI, is the optimal accomplishment of the mission in the least amount of time, with the least amount of effort.

[CEOQ]: We hear a lot about the industry buzzword "Agile IT”, what does the term Agile IT operations mean to you? And how does your Network Management Architecture help you achieve that?

[Donn]: Agility is our ability to adapt rapidly and cost efficiently in a proactive manner in response to environmental changes. Due to the nature of our mission, our environment is extremely dynamic and subject to constant change predicated on situations and circumstances. For example, we might be responding to a crisis or natural disaster such as an earthquake or a non-combatant evacuation. We must be able to respond to these with resources and communications very quickly. We need to make and monitor network changes very quickly because as assets are moved, we must understand how the change will impact our network. Our network management architecture and network systems integration is a pro-active network management process that enables us to identify potential shortcomings, bottle necks, congestion points, traffic engineering issues. Because of this, we can now engage in a preventative fashion before they become serious and impact communications support.

[CEO Q]: How do you select your vendors? What do you look for in a vendor or in a partner?

[Donn]: We are a bit different than other IT shops, because we support a very complex mission-critical environment with real-time changes. IT for us is more than just about communication; it is about the safety of our operations and our people. We don't work 9-5. So we need vendors who can partner with us and understand our environment very quickly, and can dedicate their resources to help us meet our mission.

About Donn Westerhoff
Donn Westerhoff is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the Directorate of Command, Control, Communications and Computers Systems of United Stated Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base. Mr. Westerhoff retired from the United States Army in 1997 and has worked in industry for MCI, Intermedia Communications, and Verizon. Mr. Westerhoff is responsible for the directorate’s research, development, new technology evaluations and insertions and the strategic technology roadmap way ahead. He is a member of the DC CTO roundtable.

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