Lessons from a CTO's Professional Education Journey

Dwayne Emerson

Dwayne Emerson is a busy man in a big job. He’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Head of Engineering for British Telecom (BT) in the Americas.

He says MIT Professional Education taught him a career-changing lesson: “It was how to sit down and keep quiet. I’m still working on that. I’m a very impatient person.”

But he’s discovered that silence can be golden in his technology space — especially when coaxing team members toward innovative solutions — an insight derived from Dr. David Niño's Digital Plus Program online course, Leadership & Innovation for Technology Professionals. Emerson was among the first enrollees in 2017.

“I was sort of nervous about taking it,” he says. “I’d just turned 48 and hadn’t been in school for some time. With my travel, trying to find time to do these classes was a bit uncomfortable and intimidating. But I really enjoyed it. It created long-lasting knowledge of who I am and how I’ll lead.”

His responsibilities include developing and deploying new products and services for large global customers in the managed IT telecommunications outsource field. “So it’s very important to try to find ways to stay fresh and relevant for the companies we do business with,” he says, “and also make sure internally that our company has the capability and capacity to serve.”

Holding his tongue during work conferences took him way out of that big-boss comfort zone.

“We’re sitting in a session discussing a problem,” he says, “and everybody looks over at me like maybe I’ve got the answer. But when I don’t say anything, they start circling around a topic and my facial expressions keep them moving in a direction. When they’re done, they say. ‘What do you think?’ And I say, ‘I think you’ve got it.’ Or, ‘I think we need to add this, or do that.’”

He still struggles with this indirect approach to leadership.

“I’m afraid if I don’t speak up, I’m going to start losing credibility. People are going to begin wondering why I’m in this job if I’m not driving the conversation. But the truth is, I’m really trying to help people grow. And, as a leader, knowing when to engage and when to listen is a real learning experience for me. You want to sort of push or pull people towards your vision which you haven’t necessarily shared with them yet. It's like watching a child swim for the first time. You’re sort of anxious and nervous but you’re ultimately relieved when they figure it out.”

He says this is paying off with his team.

“They think more like innovation leaders now,” he says. “They’re looking outside the box, taking on challenges that are twice their size and weight.”

Equally important, he says, is making sure everyone understands the problem before them.

“In five or six situations, we had different people in the room at different levels and different types of personalities. They all seemed to know what the problem was — until we asked them to put it on the white board. Then we realized maybe we didn’t have it nailed. The clouds lifted and things got a whole lot clearer. People were communicating so much better.

He says the simplest MIT-derived leadership and innovation lesson was — to keep it simple.

“I tend to go very deep on topics,” he says,” because I feel I need to demonstrate competence. Well, the competence comes through the simplicity of the message. If you can’t express it clearly, you may not understand it well enough.”

His advice to other professionals: Don’t stop investing in ongoing education. This is just the beginning. If you’ve gotten a few things out of the course, I assure you there’s a lot more you can learn and a lot more you can do.”

Go Beyond

You can learn more about Leadership & Innovation for Technology Professionals here.

Hear Dwayne talk about his experience with MIT Professional Education.