Editor's Note: This is part of a series written by CIOs discussing their thought processes and lessons learned from major events in their tenures as CIO. Check back tomorrow for a companion post.
There had been a quiet but intense political power struggle going on that year. We all knew the CEO was going to retire in a year or two, and the issue at stake was to determine who would replace him.
In the politics of deciding who would be the next CEO there was one contender who openly supported IT and advocated for new investments in our systems infrastructure. The other major contender advocated continuing to cut IT budgets. This would be made possible by eliminating all new development work and scaling back on systems already in place. IT would go into a strict maintenance mode and nothing else. At the same time though, business needs were changing rapidly and sales volumes and revenues were increasing. I backed the contender who was in favor of spending more money on IT.
I had been cutting the IT budget each year for the last several years. On one hand it had helped me learn to be ever more resourceful and agile, and get things done quickly and simply. We had some notable project successes that year. But I also felt we were getting to the point where the budget cuts had to stop. I honestly could not continue to tell the board of directors or shareholders that the IT budget was adequate to support our business needs.
There had been some awkward moments that year when big customers and important prospects had asked about our IT capabilities. I was unable to give the answers they wanted to hear, so I dodged the questions and passed them off to other executives on the business side of the house. They were no more comfortable than I was in providing the expected answers.
I put together a budget for the following year that showed selected increases in IT spending and development work in order to provide the systems infrastructure I felt we needed. At the request of several board members I sent them copies of my proposed budget. I had approval to circulate my budget to certain people. The political process of selecting the next CEO was coming to a close, and I did what I could to help my preferred candidate.
Yet, I just didn’t see a way forward if the other candidate came to power. At senior levels there is a strong need to be part of the management team and be a team player. That means showing a united front to customers, staff, and everyone else. It means supporting company plans and policies and doing so in public. If the plans were to continue cutting the IT budget, then I knew I had no place on that management team.
From time to time there are points where I have to assess what I believe in and what I am prepared to say and do. I need to figure out where the danger zone is and be careful about crossing into it. When I see serious risks to myself and to the company resulting from certain courses of action, I find it impossible to remain silent for long.
There was a scheduled meeting where I was to officially present and explain my budget. At the last minute that meeting was canceled, and the next morning a new meeting was suddenly scheduled. I saw it when I checked my calendar. It was accompanied by a note asking me to come alone.
I sensed I was about to find out something important. Come back tomorrow to find out what I learned and whether I had read the politial tea leaves correctly.