CIO Black Sheep

Some years ago, a senior IT leader was leading a project that ran amuck.  Over budgeted by nearly a million dollars, there were significant, unanticipated, unresolved issues and recrimination was sweeping the function.  Morale was sinking, the leadership team was warring, and it appeared the IT leader was not acknowledging the magnitude of the problem.  The VP of Human Resources called to see if we could help. 
After surveying the organization and interviewing the leadership team, we quickly isolated a few factors in the debacle.  As you undoubtedly guessed, the overwhelming issue was a lack of communication.  There was no clarity around the procedures, outcomes, or timelines.  There were no regular meetings among the teams, and communication with the business was sporadic.  When IT people tried to sound the alarm about issues, they were aware the message wasn’t reaching the CIO.  Her own team leaders were hushing up the problems and blaming each other’s teams.     
To make matters worse?  The CEO at this point still had virtually no idea how bad things were. Why is that a bad thing?  Because of course, he found out.
It hadn’t started as a deliberate “cover-up.” Most people in the IT organization had the best of intentions.  But as the situation spiraled into a crisis, and the CIO was still hoping to fix it before she reported back to the CEO.   
As the saying goes, hope is not a strategy.  
When a project is in trouble, at the first sign, it is time to speak up.  You have to be frank and forthcoming with your senior colleagues, or you are putting a trusted relationship at risk.  Once you lose that trust, it is hard to win it back.  It takes years to build, and minutes to ruin.  More important, long before there is trouble, the communication plan has to be clear.
Earning a seat at the table of course begins with alignment between IT and the rest of the organization around the business imperatives, including strategic goals.  Then there must be absolute agreement on expectations, metrics, deadlines, how you will deal with conflict, and of course, outcomes and benefits.  It isn’t enough to get it right at the beginning.  Communication has to be constant, and must include a feedback loop – multiple-channel communication- with all stakeholders – from the team to the businesses to the C-level.    
Martha Heller’s new book, The CIO Paradox, brilliantly highlights the challenges that CIOs face as partners in the business.  Earning a seat at the table is a perennial topic at CIO gatherings.  Why is it such a challenge for so many CIOs to get shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the executive team?  Well, for starters, technology speaks a different language, operates in a different culture, and faces different complexities, as Heller points out.  This creates a mentality of separation.  “We don’t say ‘finance and the business’ or ‘sales and the business’ or even ‘HR and the business,” says Heller.  “Clearly there is something about IT that causes uncertainty and confusion among the members of the executive committee.”
Uncertainty and confusion goes both ways.  Sure, many CEOs don’t “get” how IT can be the greatest ally to the business.  They don’t understand what an impact technology can have in creating efficiencies and cost-savings, innovations, even new products and services that generate significant revenue.
However, very often it is also the CIO mindset that keeps the technology leader from becoming a full-fledged partner.  You cannot offer value if you view yourself as at all separate.  If you allow a separate mentality to creep into your own thinking, you can be sure it will also live in your organization.  
I say this with all due respect, because technology leaders are among the most exceptional, talented, collaborative, brilliant leaders I’ve ever worked with.  Yet often they become discouraged and beaten down by the daily battles.  They tire of the criticism and get sick of the corporate blame game.  Their battle scars are written all over their faces.   This is why of all the paradoxes Heller names in her book, this one is the hardest to resolve.  
When a CIO has the “right” mindset, he or she becomes a most trusted confidante of a CEO and senior team.   I remember the CIO who taught me a lot about this.  He was so effective communicating the business imperatives, and his values, that everyone I ever spoke with in his organization could repeat them to me, and did.  He also set the expectation to over-communicate with each other, and their business counterparts.  Everyone knew the goals, metrics, timelines and outcomes.  They were evaluated by how well they aligned their activities around those.  They were applauded when they elevated issues.  They were expected to acknowledge and resolve conflicts.  When a project did hit a bump, everybody in IT knew what to do and who to call because they were in constant communication.
The mindset of the CIO is the mindset that will permeate the IT organization.  The right mindset will inspire you to go above and beyond, which includes creating a robust communications plan.  Set the expectation –no one should assume he or she has communicated enough.  Reinforce the partnership mindset.
80% of your time as a CIO should be spent on communication. 
Heller recommends that you revisit some communication basics.  Here are a few of her tips:

  • Downsize reports 
  • Don’t hold too many IT only meetings
  • Live and die by your communications calendar 
  • Get rid of the jargon, once and for all
  • Borrow your metaphors from the business
  • Give your organization a motto

I strongly recommend this book, not only for IT leaders and aspiring leaders, but for everyone in the C-Suite.  If you’re an IT professional, purchase two copies, and give one of them to your CEO. 

About the author: Suzanne Bates is CEO of Bates Communications, a strategy firm that drives business results with powerful communication.  She is the author of three best-selling business books-Speak Like a CEO, Motivate Like a CEO, and Discover Your CEO Brand.  Bates provides executive coaching, consulting and leadership development for C-Suite and emerging senior leaders.  Their clients are leaders in world-class companies including American Express, Dow Chemical, State Street, Fidelity, Kimberly Clark, Met Life, and EMC.

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