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.
Do CIOs sleep well, or they are subservient to problems, issues, alerts, emails, etc that keeps them away from their 40 winks? I have been asked this question many a time, and then some more. So it does make me wonder whether CIOs are indeed a sleep deprived lot. So let’s track down the issues that CIOs grapple with (the current perception at least—in many cases, also the truth).
If business runs on IT, then system availability will be first on the list. This is a combination of network, server, applications, and everything in between. Do CIOs get nightmares about downtime? I guess a few do, but most don’t, as their deputy (or the Head of Infrastructure), along with the application owners will typically be tasked with this. The ball does indeed stop at the CIO’s desk, but rarely contributes to insomnia.
Second on the list is that of critical projects meeting expectations on the fronts of budget, time and quality. In a few cases, this will also include delivering business value. These deliverables also get discussed in management meetings, and thus have higher visibility within peer CXOs (and to that extent accountability, with the CIO). When projects do go awry, it is quite likely that the CIO has to intervene and manage expectations (read as damage control). So it is likely that challenged projects may adversely impact the CIO’s ability to have a good night’s rest, unless if the CIO is on top of the situation as the project unfolds. In such situations he can obviate the need for uncomfortable dialogue.
What about budgets? In times of cost cutting and most businesses coming out of survival mode, also referred to as the ‘new normal’, there is indeed pressure to think out of the box to sustain operations at lower costs, while finding innovative ways to fund new projects. Relationships with partners and vendors have now reached a new plane, which discards most benchmarks from the past. While many CIOs are able to balance the investment versus cost debate, some dread the thought of another discussion with the CFO. However, this contribution towards the bedroom woes may be negligible.
Last on the list is talent retention or attrition, depending on how one looks at it. In bad times, people stay, in good times when you need them, they leave. It’s a simple demand and supply equation that CIOs have to struggle with. While the supply may be plentiful, you cannot replace a DBA with a Business Analyst and hope to do well. Outsourcing can help de-risk partially. Thus, in the era of shrinking teams and increasing churn, the CIO’s ability to hold the team together goes a long way towards the IT organization’s success. Probably something to keep the CIO awake on the day he receives one more resignation.
The reality is that one of these remains in focus for most CIOs. These focal points change periodically. At the same time, CIOs are focusing more on business measures and not IT focused ones. Maturity of the service delivery models, coupled with partner evolution (See: The evolving IT Service Provider), has contributed to some of these not being on the radar (as much as they were in the past).
So do business issues like lack of growth, profitability of the company, supply chain issues, product or service availability keep the CIO from sleeping well? Probably as much it does to other CXOs in a cohesively knit enterprise.
I guess a wise man said it well, “Work pressure is real, but stress is optional”. So my answer to the questions has been, “I sleep well at night”—at least, most of the time!
It doesn’t matter which conference you go to, or who is the person at the discussion’s other end — Whenever the CIO’s evolution is examined, the other person always has a view on what should be a CIO’s next role. Multiple propositions get discussed, including that of the COO and CEO. Sometimes, the lateral inclusions are in supply chain, logistics or human resources, rarely in finance or marketing. But is the CIO an interim position that has to evolve into some other role? Why can’t CIOs be happy being good CIOs?
A few weeks back, a reporter called me. She said that I was one of the few people she knew who was happy being a CIO. She had not come across too many such people within her contact book despite having hundreds of listed CIOs. So this discussion continued on whether a CIO should necessarily move on to another role. If yes, which one?
I wondered a bit as she continued her excited chatter — what’s wrong in being a CIO, and that too a good one! Why is the world interested in my evolution to another CXO’s role (as if other CXOs would be extremely delighted to fill in my shoes)?
Apart from technology expertise, CIOs by virtue of providing technology enabled systems and processes across the enterprise have unparalleled visibility in terms of what happens across each function. They are expected to “know” the business, as well as understand the domain specific challenges and opportunities. Such a knowledge level is essential to provide new technology solutions, whether it’s marketing, sales, warehousing, finance or any other. Typically, this gets referred to as the wonderful world of “IT-business alignment”. Such opportunities give them an advantage over others from the CXO domain who may not have this opportunity (or the interest). Best of all, other CXOs do not get measured for knowing other functions and their ability to engage, let’s say the head of supply chain, in a discussion on the best put-away process.
This advantage and ability to influence business outcomes opens up possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, the CIO could take on additional responsibilities beyond “mundane” IT. In all possibility, he can bring about the best while improving the present. Analytical abilities come to the forefront at this point, whereupon the CIO typically challenges status quo, seeking a better tomorrow. So the question of whether a CIO is ready to take on the role of another CXO or a COO becomes irrelevant. If we push the envelope a bit further, he even has a remote chance of being a CEO. So pressure starts to build upon the CIO to get on with it.
So what’s wrong in being a good CIO? Why can’t the CIO remain in the current role and evolve it into a meaningful contributor to the organization (a difficult task to consistently execute)? At this point, the Board may benevolently grant a seat in the Boardroom’s hallowed chambers with other CXOs, executive and non-executive directors. The CIO then reaches the pinnacle of success within his role’s dimensions. Sustaining this peak position obviously requires as much effort as it took to get there. It’s at this juncture that the CIO can be deemed ready to challenge any CXO and succeed in the new role. Of course, this requires the ecosystem to at least be neutral (if not positive) towards the CIO. A negative or a non-conducive environment will be a challenge for any CXO, including the CIO. (See Are Boards ready for the CIO?)
Time to get back to the question “Are you happy being a CIO?” If you are, great! Build upon your success, challenge the organization, and keep on asking the question, “What do I need to do to get to the Boardroom?” If you aren’t, you are probably a CIO by accident or unable to find the magic formula for success (the magic formula is for another day). If you face a personal crisis on your role as a CIO, you should find yourself a mentor or coach who can help. Otherwise, go and find the right job for yourself!
Every now and then, we come across the question, “Is the CIO ready for the Board? Can they do justice to a position on the Corporate Board?” This issue has been debated ad infinitum, as some CIOs have already made it to the boardroom — even as others continue to passionately drive the IT agenda within their enterprises. Although certain CIOs are yet to evolve to a level where they equal other CXOs within their companies, the majority of CIOs have already reached a level of maturity to directly or indirectly advise their management on strategic and operational issues that have a strong dependency on the IT systems that enable their company.
While addressing a group of CEOs in an event recently, Ram Charan, the renowned management guru discussed the purpose, functioning and effectiveness of Boards. According to him, the following characteristics differentiate good Boards:
- Boards should be competitive.
- They should review the external environment, and not remain inward focused.
- Board members should know other CXOs within the company, as they drive the company agenda and deliver the company’s vision to the stakeholders.
- Global Boards have to balance growth and resources equally well. Resource allocation is a key to Board management.
- Boards should continuously review internal and external relationship building by CXOs, and ensure that the CEO also creates a pipeline of leaders.
- Boards should have a very clear 12 month agenda, apart from a strategic roadmap.
Now let’s look at the typical CIO and the role that he plays in the company. He provides the information infrastructure that enables his business to interact and transact with customers, suppliers as well as within the enterprise. He also analyzes, presents, protects and disseminates information assets across the ecosystem. A day without IT is unimaginable across most business units (as well as industries).
The CIO is not just the information infrastructure’s custodian or provider. Today the CIO challenges business processes, influences outcomes, and works with all stakeholders across the enterprise to automate, rationalize, and optimize. The CIO’s view of the company has better breadth and depth than that of other CXOs. Their interactions and ability to switch from Marketing to Finance to Supply Chain with ease during different meetings demonstrates their comfort levels with multiple domains. This led to an observation by a leading thinker, “IT is too important to the organization to be left to the IT staff”.
Last week, I had interactions with two mid-market CEOs. A generation gap separated them in terms of age, experience as well as mindset. The younger CEO challenged the CIO and encouraged him to challenge other CXOs within his enterprise. This initiative helped in the CIO’s integration into the management team, as well as a position on the board of directors. His words were bitter-sweet music to the ears of the CIOs he addressed. Some CIOs wistfully wished that their respective CEOs quickly reach this level of understanding. The younger CEO’s enterprise used IT and information better than peer organizations — an impact demonstrated by the company’s financial metrics.
The older and much respected CEO (also on many boards, as well as the founder of an IT company) admitted that his CIO did not have a position on the management table, forget the Board! He put the onus of this challenge on the CIO, and did not believe that he was required to provide any impetus towards the CIO’s career progression. As this Q&A with the CIO gathering progressed, it became evident that the difference in mindsets (and thereby the organizational culture), would have made it challenging for any CIO to migrate to the management team. His contention was that Boards discuss people and money issues, but not IT issues. He felt that this was the result of how his CIO has not created visibility with the Board. He found it difficult to accept that most Board members appreciate the need to be aware of how technology impacts their enterprise or can provide unique competitive advantages.
Considering that experience and wisdom (that comes with age) plays a significant role in the Boardroom’s composition, a majority of directors or independent directors belong to the latter classification. Until Boards transform themselves and induct fresh young leaders who are comfortable with technology, use it daily for normal tasks, and worry when they hear about competitors implementing new technological innovations, it will remain an uphill task for the CIO to find a chair in that room.