Los Angeles Chief Information Officer Ted Ross joined Aileen Black on Leaders and Legends to discuss his leadership philosophy.
In addition to his role as CIO, Ross is also general manager of the city’s Information Technology Agency (ITA). His department has over 450 employees and delivers enterprise IT services to 48,000 employees across 41 City departments and digital services to over 4 million residents. He also oversees a 105 million dollars budget.
When discussing his leadership style Ross shared that he is a strong believer in situational leadership. He said, “ I firmly believe that you got to match your leadership style to the readiness of the staff,. With that being said, I think quite often I’m democratic, I work with IT professionals, I work with elected leaders, and I work with knowledge workers. I think in my experience, it’s really important to engage them, you have to listen to them, you’ve got to explain fully the decisions you make then you’ll find that when they make decisions on their own, they will be tighter in alignment to the goal of the organization.”
Ross says it’s also important for leaders to encourage their employees to share their thoughts and not to be intimidated by your title. He says, “One of the things I did not enjoy about becoming CIO is I stopped being Ted and I became sir, in the elevator. And while I don’t mind being called sir, and people giving me a certain level of respect, I feel quite what often quite happens is they start distancing themselves from you. I believe to be a great leader, I don’t want to be distant, I want to understand where they’re at, I want to be able to help lead. I don’t want to be segmented off to a corner office or an ivory tower, and just a sir. So I think it is important to have a good dose of humility, this has always helped me out.”
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When asked about his thoughts on leadership versus culture and how he kept his team on the path of innovation, Ross said the question really feels like “the Achilles heel of government”. He passionately shared that nowhere is leadership more important than in our government, where they make such important decisions almost every day.
Ross says, “Historically, government culture is known to be some of the worst, you know, when it comes to compare with private sector, nonprofits, etc. So this is an extremely important conversation. Leveraging a quote from Peter Drucker, “ culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So culture has to play a huge role in any organization. Honestly, if culture is the set of values, the beliefs, the behaviors of an organization, then I feel leadership either is reinforcing the existing culture, or is in the process of changing that culture, for better or for worse. So leadership has, I think, a tremendous responsibility of promoting an effective culture. So it’s not just we want to have one in which it’s cool to relaxing, people want to go to work, people want to engage. That’s extremely important. But also effective when people want a piece feel like they’re contributing, that they’re doing good job. And it’s got to be a culture that to other management, or to our elected officials is a culture of success, one in which you are delivering on what you promise, you’re able to deliver it on time or under budget, or you’re able to make the right adjustments. “
Ross also said great leaders must have humility and a continuous learner if they want to be effective during good times and when facing big challenges. He says “ I think there’s a lot to always be learned, even if you consider yourself a great leader, there’s still a lot that you can learn from the folks all around you. So I think a good dose of humility is important.”
During his time as CIO of the City of Los Angeles, Ross has had to deal with huge challenges ranging from Fires to Earthquakes to the Pandemic. He says he has been proud of how his staff addressed all of those challenges and actually keeps a log so he can remember all “the great things” his staff has been able to accomplish. He says his department’s finest hour was its COVID response. He added, “I’ll never forget, basically, you know, getting an announcement on March 19 of 2020, that we are going to move to full time telework, an organization that has 35 teleworkers before that announcement, and we had to get us up to 18,173. I couldn’t be more proud that we had 10,000 teleworkers within 72 hours. We knew that this could be a possibility so we had already built out the platform, and we were already practicing on it with some of my own staff. Another accomplishment was the COVID testing app. Can you imagine getting a phone call on a Friday night from a deputy mayor saying on Sunday, we need to announce a COVID testing app. This was very early on in the COVID pandemic, before people were really testing, within 72 hours, we had that app up and running. The mayor announced it on a Sunday. Within four weeks of that we had helped schedule 60,000 COVID tests. These tests were for critical people that would keep our city running. They were medical workers, Uber drivers, and restaurant workers. Key people that early on in that pandemic kept our city running needed access to testing and vaccinations. Other early efforts of the CIO team that helped keep people from being homeless was developing a way to apply and receive rent relief. In a city as large as the City of Los Angeles, you can imagine so many people were devastated by COVID economically, and our ability to deliver over $105 million in rent relief early in the pandemic, to which we had over 221,000 applicants for that money was critical. The team had the app up and running in record time. I couldn’t be any more proud of the work that my staff as well as other city leaders performed during that time.”
Finally Ross shared the best piece of advice he ever received, “I learned this piece of advice from a council member named Michael Woo. His advice was to watch out what you say in the elevators. You’d be surprised the terrible things people have said in crowded elevators, not realizing all the people who are listening in on it. So I know during COVID that might seem a little strange because most of our elevators are pretty empty. But watch out what you say in elevators.”