CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line

Mary E. Shacklett, President, Transworld Data | 11/29/2011 | 35 comments

Mary E. Shacklett
CIOs have to know the business and how IT delivers value, but they also have to understand enough of the technology to inspire and earn the respect of their staff. Where is the fine line in all of this -- and what happens if you overstep it in any given direction? First, let’s look at the business side:

  1. Think of yourself as the technology “salesperson” if you’re the CIO. This means being able to put yourself in your business users’ shoes and to feel their pain with sales revenue, cost-cutting, running business operations, and managing risk. Only by understanding where they “live” each day will you be in a position to deliver the highest technology values to the business and to sell them on the technology investment.

  2. Fine tune your communications skills. Communications exist on multiple levels, and the consummate CIO must be able to execute them all. It begins with person-to-person communications that go far beyond what is said or written in words. This includes the ability to recognize less obvious signs, such as body language, which some psychologists believe is 80 percent of the content of any face-to-face meeting. From here, communications extend into basic skills like the ability to make a strong presentation to the board or to make conscientious follow-ups on communications. Most importantly, everything you say about technology and how it can assist the business should be expressed in plain English. The moment you use jargon, you lose your audience.

  3. Always put the business first. If you can’t find a driving business reason to pursue a technology purchase or direction, don’t do it. It’s no longer good enough to invest in technology for technology’s sake.

The technology side of what a CIO does is equally important, but in a different way. For most CIOs, this translates into how they interact and communicate with IT staff. Key points in this area are:

  1. Understand and converse with staff about the technologies in play in the datacenter, but know where to draw the line. This is a difficult area to master for many CIOs who come from technical backgrounds. When they see staff responding at a slower rate than they would themselves, there is a natural tendency to want to “take over” and call the shots. Don’t do this. If you dive in, you risk losing sight of the business side of the company, which should be your primary focus. Also, if you take that step, you risk demoralizing your staff, who may not feel you have faith in their ability to tackle a challenge. On the flip side, if you isolate yourself and don’t have sufficient knowledge of the technologies your staff members are implementing, you risk making poor judgments about overall technology direction and losing the respect of staff, who expect you to be knowledgeable about every project.

  2. Learn to delegate. This can be a difficult step for CIOs, who often come from a control-oriented discipline. However, if you don’t let go and put trust in your senior staff, you will never be able to take care of the business issues that are so necessary for the formulation of a sound technology direction.

  3. Engage your staff strategically, not just operationally. IT staffers will do a better job when they are thoroughly informed about what the business needs from IT and how the projects that they are undertaking are going to make a difference.
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Joe Stanganelli   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   12/2/2011 1:32:45 PM
Re: Communication Skills
John Belushi would indeed be great.

Although of a different time period, Phil Hartman would be a great CEO, and Dana Carvey would do well as the "translator" CIO, IMHO.
Mary E. Shacklett   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 10:10:16 PM
Re: CIOs
Yes, I  do get the picture, white space.

Thanks for  writing in about it!

User Ranking: Blogger   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 7:51:22 PM
Re: CIOs
@Mary: Thank you. It is like parenting, isn't it? And yes, if only people would talk to each other. You know, I have come across situations where there is a whole shadow management going on in companies - someone in business knows someone in IT, and things are done on an informal basis, without the memos or emails. Of course, we are not talking about entire projects, but you get the picture.

User Ranking: Blogger
Mary E. Shacklett   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 7:16:09 PM
Re: CIOs
Nice comment.

It IS like parenting.

If only people would talk to  each  other....
User Ranking: Blogger   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 5:38:04 PM
Re: CIOs
The best ones walk around and mingle  with staff--without getting in the way!

Its somewhat like parenting. If only the CIOs would come out and say why they are doing what they are doing, and listen to the other side of the story. If only the business people could tell IT why it is they want Facebook. Some technology thingy stuff, I mean.

A dialog can solve things faster, and I daresay, smarter, than a barrage of memos. I remember writing on E2 about a situation where IT demanded all requests for printer paraphernalia be routed through it; and things came to a grinding halt when the printer ran out of paper. 
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Mary E. Shacklett   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 5:31:28 PM
Re: communication is key
For many, taking a communications course helps.

CIOs often come from analytic backgrounds that don't emphasize interpersonal skills. 
User Ranking: Blogger   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 5:30:11 PM
Re: communication is key
CIO's need to converse with staff and users well. with proper communication things are solved before there are problems

You have a point. Active listening, perhaps? I think the challenge is a lot territorial, and secondly, there is a gross lack of ummmm, enterprise empathy. There is a reason why IT managers with a business background (or business managers with a engineering background) command such a high premium. There are so few of them!

I keep reading about how we are falling behind on STEM disciplines; can you imagine what the future will look like?
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Mary E. Shacklett   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 5:29:30 PM
Re: CIOs
The best ones walk around and mingle  with staff--without getting in the way!
User Ranking: Blogger
Mary E. Shacklett   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 5:24:07 PM
Re: Learn to delegate

Delegation depends upon the  strength (and loyalty) of the people that the CIO has on staff.

If he/she  is  fortunate enough to have strong and loyal performers  and thinkers, then  (s)he should not place limits on what can be appropriately delegated.

When  it comes to final strategic decisions and what gets carried to the board or other C-level executives, the CIO needs to maintain control and responsibilty.


User Ranking: Blogger   CIOs & the Need to Walk a Fine Line   11/30/2011 5:20:20 PM
Re: Communication Skills
This notion of IT "translating" sounds like great fodder for an SNL sketch or something similar.

I absolutely agree with you! Wish John Belushi was here to play the IT guy. Adam Sandler? Nah. Ben Stiller? Timberlake, perhaps?

If we have a show of hands on whether we have come across more than a couple of CIOs who also 'get' what the business requirements must have, how many raised hands do you think there will be? Changing lightbulbs apart, I have seen it very rarely that IT owns a business process, even with tech companies, even within Fortune 500 tech companies. It could be the companies I have kept, but most senior solution architects I know do not like their CIOs. Sometimes it just seems like a game of one-upmanship going on.
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