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CIOs' leadership skills help teams see greater vision

The years and days leading up to the anticipated Y2K computer glitch were frenzied for anyone in IT. Rafael Mena, who was a software development project manager at Florida’s Orange County government, had about 30 projects on his list at any given time. He recalls a conversation with a department head about one of them.

“‘What priority is this project?'” Mena asked him. “He says, ‘What do mean? They’re all No. 1.’ I said, ‘OK they’re all No. 1. Can you tell me which is which one is No. 1a, which one is b and c?’ He didn’t like that, so he pretty much left the meeting.”

Mena, now CIO for Orange County and speaking at a career panel at the recent Gartner Symposium ITxpo, in county seat Orlando, Fla., was in home territory. But his message was for CIOs and aspiring CIOs everywhere. Conversations like the one he had 15-plus years ago don’t happen in his IT department.

“Communication to me is the most important aspect within my operation, my group,” Mena said. “My organization knows what priority No. 1 is, No. 2 is,” he said.

The panel discussion, hosted by professional network Hispanic IT Executive Council, brought together Mena and Daphne Jones, CIO for global services IT at GE Healthcare. The pair talked about the qualities, characteristics and skills CIOs need to lead IT in an era of unprecedented technological change and maintain a unified vision.

Gartner analyst Gene Alvarez (right) moderates a discussion with CIOs Daphne Jones, of GE Healthcare, and Rafael Mena, of the Orange County (Fla.) government, on succeeding as a CIO today, at the recent Gartner Symposium ITxpo in Orlando, Fla.

Jones said in her IT organization, alignment with a single set of goals is crucial. That’s enforced by town hall-style meetings and smaller team-based check-ins. It’s all part of the mission to be “simple, relentless creators of value.”

“So I drive simplification. How can we do it faster? How can we do it with less bureaucracy?” she said. Doing that requires a deep knowledge of the business goals — and determination. “The word no, the word impossible is just somebody’s opinion; it’s not a fact, so my goal is to think of the word impossible and just knock it out of the way and be relentless in the pursuit of value.”

For Mena, the goals of the county mayor are paramount, so he works to ensure his team is working toward them, meeting with senior managers once a week and every staff member every quarter. That ongoing line of communication is especially important for his government-sector IT team, which is responsible for supporting the IT and business systems for his central Florida district of 1.2 million. It’s an environment where anything can happen, so IT staffers need to be prepared for hurricanes, fires, floods — anything.

“Somebody dies in our jail for one reason, things change. We got to see what happened,” he said. His team would support the resulting investigation, doing research, processing information, analyzing data. “In our business you’ve got to be flexible to be able to deal with the constant change.”

One of the strengths of Mena’s team is its diversity, which gives rise to a broad range of ideas on how to crack problems, he said.

“I have people from all over the world: China, India, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Italy, Argentina,” he said. “When we sit down and discuss how to solve problems, it’s very interesting to share different perspectives from people who lived and were raised in other parts of the world. So the solutions are richer; the perspectives are different.”

Let us know what you think of this story; email Jason Sparapani, features writer, or find him on Twitter @jmsparapani.