Every time I meet a set of people aspiring to become a CIO, they are interested in the 101 of how to become a CIO. So a long time back, I wrote on my blog highlighting my viewpoint on how can one become a CIO. In recent times, the discussion has come back with renewed vigor, which includes various themes including succession planning, on which I commented last month. However, the moot point is about how one can indeed become a CIO in the new normal—when everyone is now discussing about whether the CIO role as it exists today will disappear in the next five years.
Almost all the CIOs I know understand business (process, results, metrics, and influencers) as well as other CXOs. They are no longer enamored by technology, but are always asking the business benefit and ROI questions to vendors as well as partners. Most of them are able to hold a conversation on broad business subjects with management, and challenge the CEOs on why they should be engaging the Board. Their soft skills are well honed, and the CIOs are taking on additional responsibilities within their enterprises. A few CIOs (based on their interests) are seeking lateral movement or even nudging the CEO chair.
Now, that’s indeed a reflection of how the CIO’s role has evolved, and continues to break new barriers. So what should aspirant CIOs be working on? Should they adopt a role model from amongst CIOs, or look up checklists that many paper and web publications offer? If only transformation to a CXO role was as easy as ticking off an objective question list!
There are no training programs for someone to become a CIO, nor any specific qualifications that are inherent to a CIO. Like any CXO, the CIO is an integral part of the decision makers who influence the business’ direction. However, technology enablement of the business (process, results and metrics) is one of the key contributions expected from the CIO. To successfully execute this, I reiterate that the CIO’s focus is on par with others; evidently, the key ingredient for an aspiring CIO is the understanding that the business of IT is business, and not technology. This is the key tenet on which the CIO role is evolving, and success will largely depend on the (aspirant) CIO’s ability to further the business with, or without help from technology. The remaining traits can be developed with training, coaching and/or mentoring. Look around, and you will observe that the successful CIOs are indeed business leaders—not technologists.
So no 101s on how to become a CIO, or a checklist that you can use; did I not meet your expectations? I would rather do that, than give anyone a false sense of hope!
In the recent past, I attended a few seminars conducted by large IT solution providers with a tantalizing subject line, “How to achieve business agility” (or something on similar lines). The invite’s text appeared to offer a ready-to-eat snack with all the good tidings of fruits, fresh vegetables, salads, and everything that’s healthy. Since it sounded like the formula for fitness in a week so, CIOs obviously turned up in large numbers—only to realize the old adage that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Almost all the organizers wanted to focus on how to improve data center efficiency, utilization, management and agility in provisioning new servers. According to all of them (without exception), the delay in provisioning a new server can lead to compromises in business agility, thereby adversely impacting the outcomes. Each vendor’s formula for success revolved around their solution for virtualization and (or) management tools, which allow quicker provisioning of virtual machines—allowing the IT organization to bring up a new application within hours, as compared to the days when physical servers were in vogue.
I find this unpalatable, as it presupposes that everyone in the IT organization is only focusing on the infrastructure, with no communication with the team members who create or buy applications. Or that we have a scenario where the applications team does not tell the infrastructure team until the last minute that they require some compute and storage resources to deploy their test, development, or production environments. The assumption is that the two factions are not on the same page on projects or timelines, which results in delay.
Agreed that virtual machines can be provisioned quicker than physical machines—CIOs will also agree with this, but that’s only part of the story. If not enabled with policy, it can also lead to innumerable virtual machines (with limited or no use), thereby blocking resources and creating inefficiency. Virtualization continues to remain at the periphery of deployment, with core and large package providers as yet to certify their applications on virtual servers.
Typically, IT organizations are more organized in nature, with visibility of planned deployments and requirements of licenses or hardware. Dependencies are well known, and irrespective of the physical or virtual environment that the enterprise may prefer, this is rarely a cause of delay (or lack of agility).
In my observation, project delays are more to do with scope creep, signoffs or even indifference from business. It’s a subject that deserves a longer discussion on another day.
So has the data center become the cause of business angst? Well, I’ve never heard of such a scenario in the recent (nor the distant) past!
Coming back to the event under discussion, presenters sheepishly agreed to counterviews from the attending CIOs, and attempted to justify their stance by stating that their global research data had indeed given them such insights. Talk about assumptions!
My view is that vendors should refrain from such titillating titles to attract the audience. At the end of the day, vendors end up with the realization that most participants badly want to leave. The CIOs stay back only out of sheer decency and respect. As a result, vendors run the risk of alienating their key customers by continuing this play of words.
Coming back to the ready-to-eat snack, it was stale, oily and very unhealthy—causing heartburn and acidity. Most of the CIOs required gallons of liquor to drown the symptoms of disbelief and utter boredom.
There are two camps out there, which hype the perils and advantages of social media for an enterprise—both are gaining ground and visibility. The CXO suite is confused, and this leads to pendulum like actions (moving from one end to the other) on how they react to these prophesies and theories. In many cases, it also results in total inaction, as they understand, and are comfortable with status quo. This leaves the employees in disarray—they act in an uncontrolled manner, thereby adding to the uncertainty.
Confusing? Well, that’s the moot point, so let me elaborate.
There are enough consultants, research papers, anecdotal references and general hype—that every business (irrespective of industry, geographical presence, market share and multi-channel presence) should leverage social media by connecting to consumers. This connection is deemed so important that businesses are creating presence across almost every social networking site—trying to gather the consumer around this space. A few have been able to get there with some degree of success, while others are struggling to find the meaning of being there. As organizations understand this social media revolution bit by bit, the general feeling is that it might translate to real money in the bank.
The same enterprises are paranoid, when it comes to opening access to social networking sites for their employees. One extreme is to mandate the CIO to block access to social networking sites (as the management believes that it results in precious time being frittered away). On the other hand, the balancers are defining policy for staff on the dos and don’ts of how to engage on social networking sites. These policies are expected to act as deterrents towards moderating use. However, IT organizations tend to bypass these policies for their own kin, thereby rendering the effectiveness suspect. I have not come across any organization having an open access policy with no restrictions on content, or the way it is used.
The two stances detailed above are divergent from each other. In the first case, the organization seeks to leverage social networking towards creating a business benefit, while on the other hand it restricts its own staff from participating. Every staff member is also a consumer of merchandise and services; companies would like to leverage the insights that can be created by understanding behavior. So if a similar stance is adopted by every business unit, the end result will be akin to companies creating retail stores, but preventing their employees from shopping.
Is the CXO’s disconnect due to the inability to understand the impact or control the behavior of the consumers? Or is it a generation gap between the digital natives (the new workforce) and digital immigrants (the policy makers)?
Under the guise of corporate security, the restrictions constrain natural desire to reach out in the digital world. CIOs should recognize these trends within the enterprise based on demographic undercurrents, and leverage the internal consumer’s voice before reaching out to external consumers using the digital media. These same employees will help you find ways to tap this latent source if aligned to the initiative. Else they are likely to be disruptive, since they want the freedom—because they can!
CIOs often come across situations where they realize that certain individual(s) in their team are unable to deliver even basic results. Typically, such individuals may have survived multiple bosses, or been in the company for a very long time like Wally (from the famous Dilbert series). All efforts to bring about change may have yielded microscopic results. Let me use a couple of examples to illustrate such cases.
You go into a management meeting along with some of your team members; the expectation is to gain consensus on the way forward on a difficult project. All is going well, till silence falls with uncomfortable stares. Or the meeting is halted because one of your team members blundered and lost all gained ground.
Another case is a review meeting with the CEO on what IT is doing. You get started, and then get hit on the head—one of your staff members has not kept promise despite reminders and follow-ups. It was something that you did not focus on, considering the task’s facile nature (which any idiot would find difficult to go wrong on). But then, you are now at the receiving end.
In both cases, you may feel like strangling the person. But, that’s not the corporate way of dealing with frustration!
So the first response seems to indicate that you “fire” the person. That’s an easy solution, but should be the last resort. Instead, here are some other alternatives that you could review:
1. Assign a coach to the person with daily/weekly feedback without holding anything back. Give the truth as it is, along with advice for improvement.
2. It could be professional arrogance (“I am better than others”) that translates into negative attitude. Introduce him to others who are better and show him the reality.
3. Put him on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan). Make it clear why he is on PIP—that it’s not because of work, but attitude.
4. Assign him away from the “critical” nature of the work, which works at times to demonstrate that he is not irreplaceable. It may moderate his behavior.
5. It could also be a genuine case of incompetence. Try training.
If all these steps don’t work, then the choice is obvious. But that’s also a difficult act to execute!
It’s important to take action sooner than later, as you may risk polluting the contributors and good staff. Delay will encourage the person to continue his (mis)contributions to the department. I have observed procrastination becoming the nemesis of many CIOs, so all I can say is, ACT NOW!
During my lunch with a group of CIOs, a question was suddenly raised, “Which college did you acquire your MBA degree from?” To this query, a CIO answered that he did not have a MBA degree. The second CIO echoed the same answer. Yet another CIO mentioned that he was better off without an MBA—not that he despised that tribe, but he believed that typically MBA types were removed from reality, or had unrealistic expectations. In another gathering, a similar question was doing the rounds. “Are you an engineer?” Guess what? A large number of those present weren’t. Does that imply that educational qualifications and formal business education are not critical towards being successful as a CIO?
There have been many discussions on this subject, specifically around whether a management degree is important for the CIO to be successful towards the holy grail of “IT business alignment”. Most concluded with attributing higher probability of success when the CIO is equipped with management qualifications. It is generally accepted that an MBA is likely to get higher visibility. The same set of people also agrees that success is defined by deliverables and outcomes. So if a non-MBA performs better, he will find growth over the management graduate.
If we look around us at successful first generation entrepreneurs, the landscape is filled with an equal share of drop-outs and post graduate degree holders. In fact, the technology world shows us a higher success rate with the former. However, when we look within an enterprise, the same entrepreneurs want to hire from Ivy League schools—as if to make up for their unflattering educational qualifications. One can also argue that the talent they induct creates the fabric for success. But as I see it, they bring in the machinery to run the operations; the vision, direction and opportunity is created by the owner.
Someone had asked a question a long time back. “What is the measure of an effective leader?” The answer after many attempts was “results”. For the CIO to be visibly successful, he has to deliver results that matter to the enterprise. There is no debate on whether IT matters, or if it’s essential to run day-to-day operations. Positive or adverse impact due to technology is typically acknowledged, and the IT leader gets credit. Now, there may be cases where the CIO may not get the due benefit. This may be due to the CIO’s inability to communicate, or the CEO’s ability to understand how IT makes a difference within his enterprise.
Time to get back to the question: Is there a third degree that makes a successful CIO?
I believe that it’s the passion to make the difference, balanced with business acumen and enabled by sound technology that matters. A good leader chooses the right balance of skills within the team, which can work together to deliver results that matter. Initial qualifications provide the platform for launch; the person’s drive gets them to the checkered flag. So I would acknowledge that the engineering or MBA degree could provide a foundation that may enable the CIO to explore alternative decision points which elude others.
Last month, many CIOs (including me) were subject to a barrage of security events—as if the world suddenly needed a lot more protection than it had in the past! CEOs, senior vice presidents and thought leaders suddenly seem to have descended upon the CIO, challenging the security postures of enterprises.
Questions challenging the efficacy of currently deployed solutions were very similar across almost all vendors. Many data points from a multitude of surveys were bandied around in an attempt to make CIOs succumb to the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) factor.
A typical session begins with “Top 5 technology priorities”, and since the presentation was being made by security vendors, IT security figured prominently in these lists. To the hapless CIO, statistics reveal a scary world full of crackers and nefarious elements (who want to take away customer data, send spam, phish users, attack end computing devices, and sniff network traffic). It did not matter if the audience agrees with these or not. Irrespective of whether the displayed data is from the same geography or industry, the ground is set for discourses on why your enterprise is not secure if it hasn’t deployed the specific vendors’ solutions.
Almost all cases are built upon the premise that data is only stored electronically, and leakage can only happen in electronic forms. The exercise of data classification is touted as the starting point—except that beyond a point, this classification becomes irrelevant, as the imposed controls make conducting business a painful task. Mobile workers appear as the villains who will lose a laptop or connect to unsecured wireless networks compromising valuable data.
Yet another cry is a ban on social media. This does not acknowledge the fact that business also uses these channels for connecting with customers. The mantra is “you cannot trust these gullible ignorant employees, they are the weakest link”.
Yes, people are indeed the weakest link in security compromises; but they can also be the strongest. The biggest tenet of any business operation is trust. If the enterprise cannot trust its employees to be prudent in their usage of various communication modes or protect the data that matters, then I don’t believe that a technology solution is the answer.
Information security can be effective with help of education, continuous reinforcement by the management, a “zero tolerance” policy towards adverse incidents, periodic reviews, and finally the technology stack which is dependent on the business operations. Exception management is fraught with danger, and should be aggressively discouraged. Many mature organizations have found that making an example of truant employees enhances levels of security, and builds trust with customers in the long run. Attempts to hush such cases, or not taking strict action which may already be defined in the policy sends a message of tolerance, which can significantly compromise the enterprise.
Vendors need to listen as they engage (see Irrelevance of vendor presentations) the CIO in discussions on how they can help their customers in sustaining and improving their information security postures. This has to be based on an assessment, and not based on inane survey data that may be far removed from reality for the audience. Else, they face the risk of alienation from their prime customer, the CIO.
Over the weekend, I was returning from a trip along with a score of other CIOs when an interesting debate started as the aircraft was taxied for take-off. In jest, a fellow CIO raised the question, “What would happen to the industry, our companies and the IT world at large, if the plane were to have a mishap? Apart from loss of 20 of the IT industry’s brightest minds, what other repercussions would the industry see, or our companies feel?” It set off a chain of thoughts which required serious thinking.
Every mature organization gives a lot of focus to developing layers of management. These organizations encourage its leaders to identify high potential talent, which can be groomed to take on higher responsibilities. Such an exercise is of help when the organization faces attrition at senior levels or expands, creating new opportunities for existing leadership teams. In such situations, the next levels of leaders are able to take on the mantle with minimal disruption to operations and strategic directions.
However, life does not always follow a pattern. Thus, there are disruptions when employees leave suddenly, or the planning process has not been able to groom a pipeline of leaders. Hiring from outside normally creates a gap, and learning curves can be counterproductive. This does not imply that organizations should always promote internal talent, but a move to provide the opportunities internally does definitely offer continuity.
Coming back to the IT organization, CIOs have come to the fore over the last decade. CIOs have taken on business challenges, and proved themselves by engaging the enterprise beyond usual technology solutions. Their contributions have been recognized, and many have permanent positions within management teams. In a few cases, they are also invited to join the Board.
As the CIO’s stature grows, so does the teams’ aspirations. Gaps in business understanding, communication, and team management are narrowing across IT staff. However, grooming a successor requires a different approach very similar to Boards grooming the next CEO. The CIO should consciously work towards creating the next level of leaders who s/he can depend upon in cases of exigency, and also provide additional bandwidth to take on sudden increases in demand or business growth.
Nurturing high potential talent to become a CIO does not necessarily have to be from within the IT function. Aspiring and talented individuals from other functions could also be good candidates. This is borne out by the fact that some enterprises have appointed CIOs from business functions in the recent past. The CIO needs to recognize that lateral hires can be as effective as technology staff, while taking a dispassionate view.
A common grievance is that the high potential next level CIOs seek opportunities outside more often, so why go through the rigmarole? If opportunities for growth are not aligned to the aspirations of the next level of IT leaders, they will seek to create their career growth outside. This can be managed to some extent by setting the right expectations, communication, and finally the CIO challenging the CEO to explore growth. Unless the CIO takes on new opportunities including lateral movement, the retention challenge will be difficult to address.
Are you grooming your next level to challenge your position? Are they ready to take on your role, should you decide to move laterally, or out of the organization? If not, start now. You owe it to yourself and the company, because your growth depends on this.
Fortunately, the flight landed safely. As we collected our luggage, I had some solace that the talent pipeline was strong.
It is fairly evident that the economy’s achieved a turnaround. Most key indicators (including inflation) are heading north. The IT industry is also seeing an upswing, and increased spending from customers. So vendors are now back with fresh marketing budgets. In their endeavor to woo CIOs, the number of seminars, events, offsite workshops and entertainment has suddenly increased manifold.
Levels of noise have reached such a crescendo that if the CIO were to accept every invite that came his way, he’d probably spend a couple of days every month at work. To add to this, the assorted freebies and writing instruments given away at each such a gathering would fill up available office space.
The question is, are there no other ways to engage the IT decision makers?
Typical event invites have eye catching headlines interspersed with buzz words like “Cloud Computing” or “Green” (the hot favorites for now), which is enough to entice the CIO’s participation. The content has rarely any connection to these across most events. However, since there still remains fuzziness about interpretation of these, the poor IT Heads end up hoping to gain some insights about what these really mean for them in real life. The cycle continues with almost every vendor, irrespective of whether they are software players, hardware vendors or just service providers. Another noticeable trend has been to couch the topic in business terms like “Agility” or “Profitable Growth”. CIOs start wondering if they would miss some key trend, and again end up disillusioned within the first hour.
Most events are scheduled for the evening, and start with a technology discourse—supposed to be presented by a thought leader. Poor last minute substitutions are becoming the norm (unavoidable circumstances, reminds me of the “technical glitch” with airlines), with a Sales or Marketing person who ends up reading through the presentation. This is followed by the panel discussion with a set of clueless speakers.
A frustrated audience sits through the ordeal out of sheer decency. A few end up catching up on email or leave with their cell phones glued to their ear, citing exigencies that need their attention. Those who do stay until the end find the networking damp, the time spent a sheer waste, and promise themselves not to attend another event.
Give us a break—respect the CIO!
Marketing budgets thus spent rarely provide value to the IT companies. I believe that the IT industry needs to evaluate ROI models used while planning such forays. While I agree about the need to engage decision makers in discussion and dialogue, other alternatives can be used with greater efficacy. Unearth real life business problems, and explore how the offered solution can practically solve it. Use case studies, customer speak, and focused discussion around the issue.
Don’t get upset when 10% of confirmations turn up for the event; ‘regrets’ are the enlightened ones who have suffered similar gatherings. The ‘no shows’ have probably spoken to CIOs who declined your requests, or found another interesting venue (at the courtesy of a different IT vendor).
So consider accepting substitutions from the next layer of participating IT personnel. These participants are more likely to engage in a technical discussion than the CIO. But this will not happen for too long, since they’ll also evolve towards becoming business savvy, and get flooded with invites.
March is a very interesting month for most Indian companies. This is the financial year end for a majority; it also brings to focus the ritual of performance appraisals. For a few, this is probably the only time for a formal discussion and feedback session. Irrespective of the frequency of meetings with your Manager, this one holds a lot of importance, as its outcome determines the quantum of increase in compensation and benefits, variable pay, and promotions. Thus, everyone starts preparing for this very important meeting with their manager. The higher you go up the hierarchy, the more intense the discussion. And this is where the CIO dashboard starts making a difference.
Typically, IT was used to measure uptimes, availability, application response time, and similar technology related indicators. These were deemed critical, and most meetings ended up discussing slow application response times or lack of support during month end peaks. This used to happen until realization of the futility of such measures (across the table), as these parameters did not present a true picture of the ground reality.
In the meanwhile, the IT Head also got smarter in his evolution into the CIO role. He began correlating with business outcomes in such a way that the audience began to appreciate discussion around parameters that they understood. Projects were reviewed on timelines and budgets; somewhere, the additional parameter “business value” was added, and everyone agreed. Quite a few technology solutions and consulting companies continue to offer CIO dashboards revolving around the old paradigm of availability and budgets. Today, there’s enough buzz around the business outcomes, but these are not yet figuring on the CIO dashboards.
CIO dashboards are now no different from that of other CXOs, with maybe one or two IT specific metrics being reported or monitored. One of them could be the disaster recovery site’s health, should the business contingency plan be put into action. The second may revolve around the IT organization’s financial health, considering that most IT budgets are now equivalent to an SME’s business balance sheet. As organizations adopt balance scorecards across the enterprise, the discussion around CXO dashboards become irrelevant. As business evolves from viewing reports to dashboards to gaining actionable insights into key business activities, I believe that the dashboards will be relegated to history. Our current state matters, and what we did to reach where we are. It’s also important to know why we are here, and where we should head for.
Annual appraisals bring this into the limelight, as this is probably the best discussion that most CEOs have with the CIO. Clarity of thought is important, as you prepare for this discussion. Maybe, it’s time to challenge the CEO (or whoever your Manager is), on the metrics for your next evaluation.
All the analysts have just wound up their discussion about the challenges faced during a downturn. There have been many stories, case studies, and insights on how to survive. In a few cases, the focus even went to topics such as how to thrive in an economy that challenged everyone.
Some parts of the world continue to face issues, albeit to a lesser degree. The turnaround time required for these players is slower than developing nations, where the upswing is visible, and there is already talk about withdrawal of government instituted stimulus. With the sun just beginning to raise its head over the horizon and returning growth, the problems of economic growth have already started bothering companies.
Problems? Yes, economic growth has its issues. I’m referring to the problem of talent retention.
During recessionary trends and slowdown, organizations tightened their belts. Increments were frozen cold, and many took a cut (which hurt), but then it was better than losing your job. Bonuses and variable pay were also victims of the reducing top lines. Most business units squeezed out costs. Thus, fixed costs came down, and helped generate better profitability ratios than ever imagined by many enterprises. Employees stayed put, and worked diligently to help companies tide over difficult times.
By the turn of the year, growth was back in the black. Suddenly, there were murmurs within companies about reinstatement of imposed cuts. Will bonuses be paid again? What kind of increments can employees expect? Predatory companies also saw this as a great opportunity to cherry pick bright talent from competitors, and across verticals. In a few cases, these organizations even targeted high potential individuals by name.
With no clarity, communication or delayed reaction from their own companies, these individuals decided to take the mercenary approach and move on to the highest bidder. The trickle that started late last year, has suddenly assumed scary proportions in many companies. Talent retention has come to the fore, and is now the highest priority for some of the impacted companies.
Inhouse IT organizations will see a high impact due to the coming back of “good times”, since most technical skills are not industry dependent. At the same time, IT companies are hiring (or announcing targets for people acquisition) with a frenzy similar to the scene witnessed during Y2K days (there used to be a standing joke “Trespassers will be hired”). Can CIOs work around this problem with proactive steps (or in a few instances, even go against the enterprise timelines), to retain their best?
I believe that a few CIOs will be able to ring-fence their teams, but many will suffer through the year. Some will end up hiring the best talent from other companies. However, no CIO can afford to sustain a lack of action, as status quo is not an option.