The CIO Role: One of Influence or Control?

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Influence or ControlI’d like to thank Michael Krigsman for inviting me to join him in the IT Failures town hall yesterday.  It was great to interact with a few CIOs and other experts in IT management and leadership and discuss challenges facing the CIO in successfully delivering value.  For those who missed it, the entire session was recorded.

The focus of our discussion was on the CIO’s role in project success or failure.  (William Monroe regularly reminds on on Twitter, there is no such thing as an “IT project”).  This is a rich topic and went in several different directions, including CIO tenure, how to recover as a CIO after a failure and how a project manager or team member could influence a non-responsive CIO.   The angle I’d like to explore a little more is how much of the CIO’s job is to influence desired outcomes versus personally taking control of troubled (or all major) initiatives.

Two of the factors at play are:

  • CIO Style, Skills and Personality
  • Organization Size and Structure

CIO Style, Skills and Personality

In the town hall discussion and in my post on CIO Tenure, I discussed my theory (that’s all it is) as to whay some CIOs just don’t fit into their organizations.  There can be a major disconnect if the CIO’s instinctive style doesn’t gel with the major work at hand.

Using a behavioral assessment like the Kolbe A Index (similar to the Myers Briggs), you can understand situations in which you and your co-workers will be most productive.  When I took this assessment (I’m a 5 3 8 5), it confirmed that I am a multi-tasker and experimenter and don’t need more details beyond the basic facts.  A CIO with my characteristics would likely lean more to a broader influence role than one that’s more hands-on.

Organization Size and Structure

Unfortunately, many IT organizations are huge.  As a result, the CIOs are separated by several layers from the people and projects doing the real work.  In these organizations, is it even possible for the CIO to take an active, hands-on role in leading a critical initiative?  Furthermore, are there any expectations in the minds of the CIO’s peers and boss (CEO, COO) that he/she play such a hands-on role?

Based on the organizations with whom I have consulted, it seems like there is a size beyond which the CIO can no longer regularly be hands on.  My gut says that this is for companies over the $5-7 billion revenue mark or so.  For these organizations, the CIO must be a master of influence.

How a CIO Can Influence Project Success

Influence is more of an art than a science, so these practices may seem a bit fluffy.  That said, I think there are some practical things that can be done toward achieving them.

  1. Reward Problem Solvers – One mentor of mine would enter the weekly management meeting for a $100M software overhaul program for a telecom carrier and offer $100 for the best issue.
  2. Increase Transparency – Long and generic status reports make me crazy.  Those that highlight the top 3 management issues and summarize milestones and budgets are better.  The data must be current and factual.
  3. Publicize Accountability – Project managers should have the skills and authority to make decisions and the accountability for success and failure.  When PMs are accountable and everyone knows it, different and often better behaviors ensue.
  4. Emphasize Right Person for the Right Job – When an organization takes on a new vendor or a new technology, by definition it has little relevant skills.  An influential CIO can emphasize that hiring new staff or a consultant to assist is not just acceptable, but necessary.

As I wrap up this post, I think I have convinced myself that the CIO role is one of influence for larger firms and a balance of influence and control for medium and small firms.  I’d be interested in your take.

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  • I like your tips for influence, Chris, but would add one that I’ve found to be key, especially as an organization grows: reach out to people in the ranks, regularly and proactively and without an agenda. It’s common for an executive (not just in IT) to sequester himself or herself with just direct reports, a small coterie of advisors. This is unwise both directly and indirectly: it limits the information you receive, and it creates the perception of a caste system. After I left one job where I’d done this reaching out on a regular basis, I heard later, a little bitterly, from several IT staff about my replacement: “oh, he never talks to US, just to the people who work directly for him.” There are lots of ways to do this reaching out, and they differ depending on the organization’s culture, but it’s a key tool for the CIO to avoid detachment.

  • I like your tips for influence, Chris, but would add one that I’ve found to be key, especially as an organization grows: reach out to people in the ranks, regularly and proactively and without an agenda. It’s common for an executive (not just in IT) to sequester himself or herself with just direct reports, a small coterie of advisors. This is unwise both directly and indirectly: it limits the information you receive, and it creates the perception of a caste system. After I left one job where I’d done this reaching out on a regular basis, I heard later, a little bitterly, from several IT staff about my replacement: “oh, he never talks to US, just to the people who work directly for him.” There are lots of ways to do this reaching out, and they differ depending on the organization’s culture, but it’s a key tool for the CIO to avoid detachment.

  • I was questioning the size of the company where a CIO cannot take a hands on role. Chris, realizing that it is a ROM, $5-7B seems large. I was thinking it was less than $1B. The other item I would submit is the placement of CIO in organization creates challenges for sphere of influence.

    To the title, the CIO is going to have times where he/she influence and other times they are going to control. IT projects involving a more business improvement focus would be areas of influence; however, projects dealing with compliance (SOX, etc) would be areas where there would be elements of control. It is a balancing act since there will be overlap.

  • I was questioning the size of the company where a CIO cannot take a hands on role. Chris, realizing that it is a ROM, $5-7B seems large. I was thinking it was less than $1B. The other item I would submit is the placement of CIO in organization creates challenges for sphere of influence.

    To the title, the CIO is going to have times where he/she influence and other times they are going to control. IT projects involving a more business improvement focus would be areas of influence; however, projects dealing with compliance (SOX, etc) would be areas where there would be elements of control. It is a balancing act since there will be overlap.

  • Tony

    In my view, CIOs need to influence strategy and outcomes for new initiatives (projects) but control operations and expenditure (by setting the right parameters and objectives). CIO role in aligning ICT investment with organisational goals involves education of sponsors, involvement and understanding the wider business, and good personal relationships with other key decision makers. CIO role in control is one of achieving compliance, internal best practice, good security, and good interoperability/architecture.

    On right person for right job – I subscribe to this philosophy entirely. The wrong person/personality in the project team will bring the project down. I have a way of thinking about project initiation – make sure all the stars are aligned before you buy-into it, and leave it alone if they are not!

  • Tony

    In my view, CIOs need to influence strategy and outcomes for new initiatives (projects) but control operations and expenditure (by setting the right parameters and objectives). CIO role in aligning ICT investment with organisational goals involves education of sponsors, involvement and understanding the wider business, and good personal relationships with other key decision makers. CIO role in control is one of achieving compliance, internal best practice, good security, and good interoperability/architecture.

    On right person for right job – I subscribe to this philosophy entirely. The wrong person/personality in the project team will bring the project down. I have a way of thinking about project initiation – make sure all the stars are aligned before you buy-into it, and leave it alone if they are not!

  • Interesting discussion. I agree with your bullets for influence. In fact these items should be part of any CIO’s management style.

    A CIO in any organization (large or small) should have a balance between influence and control. What that ratio is depends on the culture of the firm and the quality of the IT staff? The expectations from your peers and your boss is an important factor to weigh. Also what is the management style of the other C-level executives? Are they more hands-on or not?

  • Interesting discussion. I agree with your bullets for influence. In fact these items should be part of any CIO’s management style.

    A CIO in any organization (large or small) should have a balance between influence and control. What that ratio is depends on the culture of the firm and the quality of the IT staff? The expectations from your peers and your boss is an important factor to weigh. Also what is the management style of the other C-level executives? Are they more hands-on or not?

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  • Shailendrra Guptaa

    While I agree with all aspects and recommendations of this article the key challenge is:

    Your peers do not want to listen/hear about the risks and then when the —- hits the ceiling you cannot say “I told you so” because then you alienate them further. A challenge we face everyday. I mean the WE who are not slick talkers like our president Obama (with due regard to his abilities and this comment is a compliment to him rather than a negative impression).

    Any thoughts/suggestions will be very welcome.

  • Shailendrra Guptaa

    While I agree with all aspects and recommendations of this article the key challenge is:

    Your peers do not want to listen/hear about the risks and then when the —- hits the ceiling you cannot say “I told you so” because then you alienate them further. A challenge we face everyday. I mean the WE who are not slick talkers like our president Obama (with due regard to his abilities and this comment is a compliment to him rather than a negative impression).

    Any thoughts/suggestions will be very welcome.

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