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Editor's Letter: Show-and-Tell IT Leadership

I've got a chicken-and-egg question here. Which comes first: business alignment or IT leadership?

We know you can't have one without the other, but does the need for alignment drive the IT leadership agenda? Or do IT leaders make sure business alignment is the result of all their efforts?

As I write this, my head is still buzzing from spending an intense three days with 200 IT executives at our annual CIO Decisions Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., last month. On my way to the conference hall one morning, I ran into a CIO whose career has convinced him that "real" alignment takes place at the IT director and manager levels: the actual delivery-of-services point. By the time CIOs are fretting about it, it's too late, he said. "You can't have strategic conversations with other C-level execs if you're still worrying about connecting your technology strategy with the business needs."

I think that makes leadership the chicken and alignment the egg, yes? (OK, so not every metaphor survives this process.) Either way, leadership emerges as the defining factor in any executive discussion about linking IT with company strategy.

In our CIO Habitat this month ("The Eternal Quest for IT-Business Alignment"), Thornton May dissects the alignment process, stressing that for IT executives "the most important ingredient of alignment is time -- and where you spend it."

Indeed, the ability to actually show IT leadership (instead of just talking about it) lies at the heart of our "The 2006 Midmarket Leadership Awards."

These 25 IT executives were singled out for their show-and-tell accomplishments in aligning IT and business in industries from every corner of the midmarket. Their average company size was $420 million, with roughly 1,400 employees and 45 IT staffers -- a fairly representative sample of the 50,000 midsized businesses we serve with this magazine.

We asked nominees to describe their top business initiatives and the IT projects that delivered on those goals. We also asked about their leadership styles, which are often built around honest communication, staff empowerment and integrity. These leaders get out of their departments and into company operations. They value action over analysis, execution over evaluation. They build relationships as well as good governance models. They practice what one award winner calls "situational leadership": a talent for adjusting their styles to the life stage of the business and the unique needs of the people who run it.

Sometimes the business situation changes in a frightening fashion, as it did in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina devastation for award winner and CIO Aline Ward of Mississippi Power. Despite the loss of her own home, Ward distinguished herself through disaster preparedness, on-the-scene leadership and strong relationships with senior executives. Of course she'll tell you it wasn't her so much as her dedicated IT employees -- like the ones who carried four 250-pound servers down seven flights of stairs to restore network access to a makeshift headquarters. "Everybody pitches in. Roles and responsibility don't matter. That's what got us through it," she says, sounding like the kind of leader people want to follow.

In the end, I suspect my chicken-and-egg answer is that it really doesn't matter which comes first. When leadership and alignment work hand in hand, everybody knows it.

This was first published in July 2006

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