CIO Leadership: Listen to the Guy on the Ground

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I’ve been enjoying The Mission, The Men, and Me, an Army Special Forces commander’s account of his missions and the fundamental lessons that he took away from them.  The author, Pete Blaber, is now an executive at Amgen, which both lends credibility to the application of his ideas in a business context and provides a glimpse into the kind of leader he is.

Among the lessons he distills from his experiences is that a leader must “listen to the guy on the ground.”  He tells a story about a training mission they were planning in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.  During a pre-mission visit, they stopped in a local diner to eat and ran into a crusty old guy who turned out to be a former Special Forces soldier.  When asked what the #1 piece of gear they should take on their training mission, he said “snow shoes” because of the crust that forms over the snow would swallow their legs if they don’t have them.  These were nowhere near their gear list, especially given their trip was planned for June!

The “listen to the guy on the ground” lesson reminded me of a financial services CIO that I have worked with closely over several years.  He has a finance background and is very comfortable working with the senior business leaders - unfortunately, too comfortable.  Actually, this CIO is so focused on his relationships with his business counterparts, that he neglects developing his IT leadership.  Eventually, I believe that it contributed to him leaving the company.

His lack of deep relationships with his IT leaders and managers, led to a number of things:

  1. An ineffective IT organization structure with too many layers of management.  This would have been painfully obvious to anyone who spent any real time in meetings, governance boards, etc.
  2. Too much focus on high-level planning and frameworks, and not enough groundwork to figure out what would really work in his organization.
  3. Overruns in large programs and projects, due in part to delegation of leadership to 3rd party vendors.  On the ground leadership would have certainly reined in these projects or stopped them entirely.

His leadership imbalance could have been caused by many things.  In this case, I think it is a combination of his discomfort with IT concepts and details and his belief that he didn’t want to be perceived as a techie and wanted to maintain his “I’m an IT outsider” positioning.

Don’t neglect the “guy on the ground.”

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