Jim Whalen has been involved in IT for more than 30 years. He has overhauled IT systems at the New York City Housing Authority. As head of IT for Plan International, an NGO addressing children's poverty, he was a consensus builder who brought IT networks and resources to poor cities around the world.
Today, as the senior vice president and CIO for Boston Properties Inc., a $30 billion company, he recognizes his IT leadership style is about more than technology. It's about plumbing. And baseball. Oh, and Superman.
At a recent meeting of the Boston chapter of the Society for Information Management, Whalen discussed the many threads of his life experience that have woven together to create a successful leadership style.
Embrace foundations of your IT leadership style
One of the main tenets of Whalen's take on leadership is that you can't escape your childhood. No matter what you do, some things are just a part of you -- so embrace them and use them to your advantage, he advised.
I just turned 50, but my leadership style is still evolving, I'm always picking things up as I move forward.
Jim Whalen, SVP and CIO, Boston Properties, Inc.
For example, for as long as he can remember, he's been a people pleaser, he said. Today, he uses that to his advantage as the center of his approach to customer service.
Not many people start building their resumes in elementary school, but Whalen's entrance into the working world was part and parcel of being a third-generation member of a family of New York City plumbers. As a youngster of five, he started helping out in his grandfather's supply room and apprenticed in the business as he got older. It laid the groundwork for a lifetime of personal accountability, he said.
"That work ethic, being part of running a business, taking responsibility for yourself … that's how I grew up. I hold my managers to a high degree of personal accountability," Whalen said.
That Whalen work ethic even found its way into play. Whalen recalled summers spent playing All-Star Baseball, a board game based on players' hitting and pitching stats. He and his brother kept ledger books full of statistics to track players' progress. It was, he believes, where his math and analytical skills were first shaped. He still injects baseball terminology into his management style, asking his team what kind of hit -- single, double, triple, home run -- a project will be for customers. But he is hardly stuck in the past.
"I just turned 50, but my leadership style is still evolving," Whalen said. "I'm always picking things up as I move forward."
Pass on IT leadership through mentoring
Part of that evolution includes a growing determination to apply his leadership skills to a broader community. Whalen is heavily involved in Boston SIM's outreach committee, promoting and raising funds for mentorship programs in the city. In 2010 the Boston Private Industry Council honored him for his efforts to unite aspiring technologists with mentors and apprenticeship opportunities. He recognizes the role mentoring played in taking him to the level of CIO and in forming his IT leadership style.
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In high school, for example, he earned the nickname Perry White -- aka, Superman's boss at the Daily Planet. Although more of a math type, a teacher encouraged his involvement in high school journalism. Under the guidance of this mentor, Whalen worked his way up to editor of the school newspaper, an experience that helps him to this day. "It was all about speaking in headlines, boiling things down," Whalen said. "[My mentor] taught me how to write, how to boil down a point." The skill served him well as a young professional tasked with turning around IT operations for the New York City Housing Authority. That success, in turn, led to taking on responsibility at increasingly large organizations. One day you'll wake up, Whalen said, and realize you are the leader others are looking to follow.
"You get to a point where you realize you are the heavy, you're the sponsor, and that what you say --beyond the group you control -- is important," Whalen said. "And you have to decide what you do with that power and influence to impact change."
As much as Whalen is involved in mentoring up-and-coming IT professionals, as he continues in his career he also wants to help his current young workers. As the age gap widens between him and his team, he wants to provide examples of good leadership and spend time with them in both structured and informal ways.
"I'm trying to leverage my network for good … for my company, for myself and for the betterment of other organizations," he said.
Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.
This was first published in January 2013