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CIO management mistakes that can harm CIO careers, cause IT failures

Linda Tucci, Executive Editor
CIOs are bombarded with advice on how to succeed. But avoiding CIO management mistakes can be just as important to careers as making the novel and inspired moves no one else has considered.

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By now you know that CIO leadership means speaking the language of business and getting outside of IT to network with business colleagues and learn how IT can really help them. But are you sure you're meeting expectations to deliver value? Building the respect you need at meetings? Building enough satisfaction in the short term to ensure you'll be around to offer the next big idea?

Here are some of the latest CIO management mistakes that our stable of experts -- seasoned ex-CIOs, recruiters and the like -- are seeing as most lethal to CIO careers in these economic times, plus their antidotes to what may be afflicting you.

CIO management mistake No. 1: Failing to generate any immediate gratification.
CIOs who fail to offer any quick results and instead tip the balance too far in the direction of long-term change can run into trouble. Quick change gets the attention of the head office -- a lack of it has derailed many CIO careers, according to Chris Patrick, a consultant in the technology practice at Egon Zehnder International Inc., a retained executive search firm in Dallas.

"CIOs will come in with an expectation to drive a lot of change and often put in place the programs, structure and processes to enable that," said Patrick, who coaches the CIOs he works with to find some balance. "Big change initiatives are vital and appropriate, but many of these individuals don't realize that if you are not delivering results immediately, they may not get the chance to stick around two to five years to see through the big project."

How long do they have? "Literally, it's months. In this market, the thinking has been very short term, very cost focused," Patrick said. "If you go in and you spend the first six months learning the organization and then craft a five-year strategy, you put yourself at tremendous risk."

What to do? Patrick suggests picking the proverbial low-hanging fruit; others divide projects into phases where quick wins with high visibility, even with rudimentary functionality, can be rolled out fast. (For more on the importance of the first few months, read "CIOs Recount the First 100 Days on the Job.")

Bruce Barnes, a former CIO turned consultant, said effective communication goes a long way in mitigating this risk. "For God's sakes, keep people informed on what you're seeing, what you're thinking, what they're thinking, and where you are along the way," said Barnes, president of Bold Vision LLC, a Dublin, Ohio-based IT strategy firm. "If they don't know, they will assume the worst."

CIO management mistake No. 2: Failing to react quickly enough to a market, , especially at moments of change -- such as now.
As the economy starts to shift from cost reduction to growth mode, CIOs need to be ready to respond. Understanding where your company is in the business cycle, matching your IT strategy to that – and, ideally, anticipating the cycle -- takes you out of IT and into the boardroom.

Patrick cited Hewlett-Packard Co. CIO Randy Mott as a great example of someone who anticipates the market; he simultaneously prepared for the downswing and capitalized for an upswing. Be ready with answers before anyone asks the questions.

CIO management mistake No. 3: Failing to speak enthusiastically.
CIOs must be salesmen, and salesmen know how to sell their ideas. They speak clearly, passionately and with the conviction that makes you want to join them. A CIO with the best idea in the world won't make an impression if it is delivered deadpan or without any verve.

Sadly, that's not news to Martha Heller, managing director of the IT leadership practice at Z Resource Group Inc. (ZRG) in Westborough, Mass. "When this guy was giving a talk to the board on the most exciting IT project of the decade, he gave the talk like he was delivering a eulogy," she said. That made it hard to get people excited about the project.

Some tips: Before important meetings, practice your delivery, and consider getting some public speaking experience through an organization like Toastmasters International.

CIO management mistake No. 4: Failing to keep an open mind.
Although CIOs are hired based on their extensive experience, it can be dangerous to make assumptions based too closely on what has worked for you before. Using past experience as a template for what to do next can reveal -- or create the appearance of -- an inability to adapt to the current situation.

Even when CIOs are hired because they have been there, done that, "They still want someone with an open mind who has the ability to come in and absorb their business," said Shawn Banerji, managing director of technology and business services at recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in New York. A quick way to be shown the door? Not only rolling out a former company's plan, but also leaving that company's logo on it, Banerji said (this happened).

CIO management mistake No. 5: Conveying an arrogance and an inability to listen to what the business problems really are.
"CIOs end up preachy: 'You just don't understand; I am showing you this cool stuff,'" Barnes said. "The business guys are saying, 'This guy just doesn't get it,' and that CIO is gone -- fast. And the stereotype of the clueless CIO is perpetuated."

Hubris is the kiss of death, agreed Jack Santos, an ex-CIO and interim "clean-up-the-mess" CIO. "Nine times out of 10 when I was called in to fix a problem, the former CIO who had just been fired ended up thinking they knew more than the business," said Santos, executive strategist at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group Inc.

Of course, those who do succeed and amass the budget, respect and other trappings of it can be subject to the same temptations that sink many a politician or business executive. "It has created scenarios where we have seen CIOs dismissed for conduct," Banerji said. "We have seen inappropriate use of family consulting businesses; you're seeing shenanigans with subordinates." One ex-CIO in the banking business is now convinced that corporate planes really do have cameras, he added.

CIO management mistake No. 6: Failing to build accountability into the IT organization.
CIOs who act as if IT can set and follow its own rules have another thing coming. According to Heller, CIOs had better structure their IT organizations so there are relationships between IT and the business all the way down the food chain.

"Is there an IT director aligned with the finance organization? Are there metrics that measure that accountability -- are they known to everybody? Are they the same metrics that the business is using? What I always hear when I am doing a search for a new CIO is, there is a sense of entitlement in the IT organizations," Heller said.

CIO management mistake No. 7: Noisily trumpeting your need for business approval, in the manner of an insistent toddler.
Yes, it may be true that IT gets no respect (yet) -- but again, it's about delivery.

When this guy was giving a talk to the board on the most exciting IT project of the decade, he gave the talk like he was delivering a eulogy.
Martha Heller
managing director, IT leadership practiceZ Resource Group Inc.
"Some CIOs tend to act like a noisy, ignored child, trying to draw attention to themselves, to prove their worth. In doing that, their behavior becomes kind of narrow, focused on the task in front of them," Barnes said. Instead, make sure you are speaking the language of business and building respect through small wins. But don't fall victim to No. 8. ...

CIO management mistake No. 8: Losing sight of the big picture.
It's easy, of course, to get mired in the details: the technology itself, the processes, the resources. "The last piece is the integration of it all, making it all work together," said Barnes, and doing so seamlessly is the CIO's job. It is also the part the business will see.

"All they care about is, what is the ultimate value delivered to this enterprise as a result of everything that is moving under the surface of this lake," he said.

"I've seen many CIOs who thought they were doing a great job, when in fact, they were really out of step with expectations of the enterprise, and they were shocked to find they were held accountable for something that ultimately didn't line up with what they were supposed to do. They were so close to staring at the road that they forgot what state they are in."

Do you know of other single points of failure for CIO careers? Let us know; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer


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