'Unlearning' key to success for CIOs

The CIO for Special Olympics International expounds on the CIO's "call of destiny." The "CEO mountain" is moving to the CIO.

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- For all you heart-heavy CIOs for whom getting through to your CEO is an uphill battle, Andre Mendes has a message.

"The CEO mountain is moving to you," said Mendes, CIO for Special Olympics International and former CIO at the Public Broadcasting System.

No board of directors is going to have a leader that demonstrates insecurity.
Andre Mendes
CIOSpecial Olympics International
His advice: "Shed the weight and learn how to climb." Better yet, take the chopper. CIOs already enjoy a "helicopter view" of their organizations, said Mendes, a keynote speaker at the annual CIO Decisions Conference here.

In a wide-ranging pep talk that drew on the lectures of legendary physicist Richard Feynman, nursery songs, the principles of evolutionary biology and the Peter Principle, Mendes extolled the power of IT and exhorted his peers to take their rightful place at the apex of their organizations.

"Here IT, there IT, everywhere is IT, just as in Old McDonald's farm song. IT is the nervous system of a company, a country, of civilization today. Everything is driven by IT, from our houses to our cars, from medicine to education," Mendes said. IT represents an ever-increasing percentage of the gross domestic product, some $2 trillion at recent count.

The value CIOs bring to the table through automated supply chain systems alone has "shortened and shallowed" economic swings, Mendes said, citing data comparing the deep recession in the Carter administration to the dips during the Bush administration following the dot-com bomb and the catastrophic Sept 11, 2001, attack on the U.S.

"IT projects almost always extend to the whole company. It's not about LANs or WANs or databases. There is no more low-hanging fruit," Mendes said, claiming that by the time he left PBS he knew more about digital broadcasting -- an IT-driven business -- than any one executive in the organization. "Think big, think global and look beyond IT. Think profit and loss rather than cost containment. Think key business drivers. Understand related industries."

IT tsunami

IT is not new, Mendes said, but it is rapidly transforming every corner of the planet. His grandfather, the only literate person in his Portuguese village in 1936, functioned as a one-man local telecommunications center, writing and reading letters for his neighbors. Forty years later, the village's pipeline to the outside world was a single phone in the local general store. By 2006, the last time Mendes visited the ancestral home, Wi-Fi and satellite TV were ubiquitous, cell phones connected the population to the world and economic growth had hit the place "like a tsunami," he said.

"Technology is a several billion-year continuum constantly accelerating at a double exponential rate," Mendes said.

The evolution of technology, like evolution, is paradoxical, Mendes said -- enacted through mutation but enabled by standardization. Once the mutation becomes the standard -- whether electric lights or a Gmail account with 2 GBs of free storage -- it becomes part of the environment and quickly disappears from consciousness, allowing people like CIOs, in principle anyway, to concentrate on the next wrinkle in time.

"When you no longer have to worry about your operating system, you can concentrate on applications," Mendes said.

Reaction to the talk was mixed, judging from a random small sampling of the audience, with a few CIOs put off by the high-level talk or confused by the message. "Was the point that we should become CEOs?" asked Barry Kadets, adding that he has heard talks by Mendes, a popular speaker at IT events, that he liked more. Kadets is CIO of The Gem Group Inc., a bag and accessory group in Lawrence, Mass.

Unlearning

For CIOs hoping to ride IT's evolutionary wave, "unlearning" is as important as learning, maybe even more so, Mendes said. Agriculture would have died had someone not unlearned traditional farming methods and realized fallow fields makes yields go up. Just so, CIOs must give up old standards, the Token ring and IPX or Betamax, even if it means "unlearning a better mutation," he said.

To meet or become the CEO at the mountain top, CIOs should learn the leadership style of successful CEOs. In nonpressure situations, that means being relaxed and inquisitive, involved in what others are saying, seeking information, taking a "participative" approach and being ready to change. Pressure situations require a "more direct leadership style," taking swift action after shorter consultations. That's a hard place to be for the deliberative, analytical CIO used to taking six months or a year to make a decision on a major initiative, Mendes said, but "you can't afford to do that anymore." Technology is moving too fast.

To cut it in the brave new world of IT, Mendes said CIOs must unlearn IT's lifelong attempt at eliminating ambiguity and tolerate higher levels of ambiguity. Facing adversity, CIOs "must never let them see you sweat," he said, and must learn to project confidence. "No board of directors is going to have a leader that demonstrates insecurity."

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The new CIO must possess "social awareness," Mendes said, so be attuned to the person you're with, like "lovers when they first meet," instead of consulting the BlackBerry -- also a difficult change for someone who's essentially been "on call" for his entire career. Good leaders also demonstrate "empathetic accuracy," a social intelligence that allows them, for example, to know when a "conversation has ended," (unlike many of the programmers Mendes has dealt with over his career) and how to choose their battles. If it doesn't pay to fight with a pig, "don't fight with a pig."

Mendes' parting advice? "Beware of what your ask for," because "it's hot in that kitchen," and moving to a business-oriented CIO role or the CEO position is not for everyone, nor should it be, Mendes said, urging his peers to "remember Peter," of the famous principle that people rise to their level of incompetency.

IT Director Stuart Gross said he found the presentation "dynamic," praising Mendes' "understanding of the role of IT in the organization." Gross agreed that "unlearning" is critically important for CIOs, but difficult, given that most have gotten to their positions by mastering detailed knowledge of highly technical systems, and by paying attention to detail.

"It's hard to see that the details can get in the way," said Gross, director of IT and security at the privately held Southern California Physicians Managed Care Services in San Diego. Can CIOs change their stripes? Sure, said Gross, who reports to his CEO. "If you spend enough time with the CEO, it makes a big difference. You learn to think like they do, for one -- in business terms."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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