Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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Government CIO: Leadership is about patience and strong relationships

Mohammad Qureshi has had a varied and interesting career that has led to his current position as Government of Ontario CIO and Associate Deputy Minister.

“I got my start with a clean water agency fixing laptops and PCs,” Qureshi told ITWC CIO Jim Love in a recent episode of the ITWC podcast series Leadership in the Digital Enterprise. “From there I got into programming, and then project management.”

“I got to do a bit of industrial automation back then,” he said. Qureshi learned a lot about water and wastewater in those days, and how communities – particularly Indigenous – that do not have access to clean drinking water are impacted. “That marked the beginning of my interest in social services, and in giving back to the community. It would eventually bring me into the core of government, where I have been ever since.”

This is the essence of Mohammad Qureshi. While his career has always involved technology, his primary focus, since the early days of his career, has been on serving others.

Essential Qualities

This care and concern for people carries over into Qureshi’s dealings with members of his team.

“You can’t do anything without people,” he said. “You can try to do it all yourself, but you’re not going to be very successful.” Leadership, he said, is about providing support for your team. And as no two people are the same, this support should be tailored.”

But good leaders, said Qureshi, do more than just support their people. They also give them the freedom they need to do the work they need to do – to the very best of their abilities. Don’t get in people’s way is the key lesson here. “Good leaders empower and drive ideas. But people need to be allowed to fail – it’s how they will learn and grow.”

Qureshi said you can do a great deal for people on your team when you remove obstacles and distractions from their progress.. “You can give your team a clearer purpose and [path forward] when you shield them from company noise, or remove that noise completely for them.”

Needful Things

The global pandemic tested Qureshi’s leadership skills in early 2020. He learned the importance of maintaining a healthy team – and continues to focus on this area.

“Mental health was top priority for us in those early days of the crisis,” he said. “When we first went to remote work, we had nonstop meetings. One day I had 33 meetings.”

Qureshi knew that this was not sustainable, and so looked for ways to relieve the stress of constant meetings. It’s important, he said, to ensure people are carving out time for the maintenance of their mental health. “We ended up instituting something called ‘recess time’ in which people could just drop in and discuss anything, like ‘Do you like pineapple on pizza?’” he said.

Good Things Come …

When asked what he has learned from the challenges he has faced in his time as Government of Ontario CIO, Qureshi stressed the importance of patience. That learning has paid off. “It takes time to move forward on certain things; but when you do push through, the result is massive.”

Another big learning for Qureshi was the difference between private and public organizations. “Coming into public service, my big learning was on the financial side. Government organizations don’t run like those in the private sector; they have a different way of doing their financials. Learning that was a challenge, as was how to get your ideas carried forward, organization-wide.” In all things, he said, patience was key.

Looking to the Future

Qureshi is excited about how new technologies can be leveraged by governments. He mentioned the promise of AI in government, particularly its application toward automating certain workloads and freeing people to devote themselves to higher-value work. Yet despite the promise of technology, Qureshi remains strongest on the power of networking and relationships.

Qureshi had some simple, down-to-earth but valuable advice for aspiring leaders that revealed his openness about who he is both as a leader and as a person.

“You really want to build trust in your relationships because this will help you move ideas and influence decision – really get your ideas out there. Me, I’m an introvert by nature, so it takes effort. If you’re not an extrovert, you need to practice building relationships, especially if you’re interested in a leadership role down the road.

“What you want as a leader is the perspective of others. Being a leader means taking in all the perspectives around you, and building that out into a key problem statement or solution that you can help resolve.”

Listen to the full interview with Mohammad Qureshi on the Leadership in the Digital Enterprise podcast.

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