CIO Development

Article Becoming a CIO: the three leadership challenges

“Leaders lead people,” according to General Norman Schwarzkopf in It Doesn’t Take a Hero: “ordinary people with hopes and dreams and ambitions just like the leader.” This beautifully sums up the difference between leadership and management; between being an IT leader and a regular IT executive.

The best CIOs usually have a strong leadership profile. They weren’t born that way but like body-builders they have developed their leadership muscles until they are strong and fit for purpose. This is the first challenge because CIOs lead at the forefront of business change and this can be a battleground. Major projects promise big benefits they often do not deliver. They rarely fail for technical reasons, but expensive projects still frequently fail to deliver the big benefits even when there is no technical failure. The actual reasons usually boil down to the business not changing in the way the business case anticipated. And this is usually down to people: often senior executives, or politically astute middle managers. Whatever the immediate cause, this is a failure of leadership.

Leadership doesn’t end with change projects for the CIO. If they manage to deliver (and in the US many fail within the two-year average tenure), they have the opportunity to pursue our second leadership challenge: alignment. If you do make it to CIO you may get a new perspective on this old problem. One reason you find it so difficult to achieve and maintain “alignment with the business” is because the business is often not aligned with itself.

CEOs find ways of achieving consensus and curtailing untrammelled personal ambition, but the equilibrium which results can be unstable and – although it won’t say so in the annual report – changes in direction, mergers and demergers can be pursued for the most personal of reasons. Surely not? Show me an effective top team and I’ll show you egos as big as planets and IT directors as political innocents in comparison.

Assuming the CIO has not become consumed by either of the above he or she should be in good shape for the third challenge – to do what CEOs claim they like, but really hate: they can “challenge and influence business strategy”. This means that as they play their part in the rough and tumble of executive life they can make strategic interventions. They can convince the CEO (sometimes over their own boss’s head) that there is a better business model available that can cut out truckloads of people and paper, transform processes and bring more control to the centre, making the enterprise leaner, stronger and more responsive. Isn’t there a price to pay for this largesse? You bet, and it can be intensely personal. Anyone who gets invited to play at top table has to take care not to offend the established players or he/she is unlikely to last very long. Without them on your side you will not be able to deliver anyway. Challenging business strategy is a major leadership intervention, probably impossible unless the business is in crisis.

So, if you want to develop your leadership capability what should you do? Make a start from where you are today. Commit yourself to personal growth and step up to the leadership challenges in your current role. Find a good coach you feel you can work with, or an effective development programme that gives you specifically what you need as an IT leader, and go for it. Leading people can be the most fulfilling experience of your working life: when you are prepared for it.

Contact Brinley Platts on 07973 745 640 at CIODEVELOPMENT.COM to find out how you can engage your colleagues and team on the issues raised by this article.

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