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A CIO Conversation: CIO position 'young but here'

Darwin John, former CIO of the FBI, looks back on his more than 30 years of experience and offered valuable advice to CIOs and IT executives on IT/business alignment issues, collaborative CIOs, the role of IT in the organization and more.

Darwin John, former CIO of the FBI, knows a thing or two about running a successful IT organization. Following his presentation on "Finding a delicate balance in a CIO's world" at the SIMposium conference in New York City, John sat down with Assistant Site Editor Sarah Lourie. John looked back on his more than 30 years of experience and offered valuable advice to CIOs and IT executives on IT/business alignment issues, collaborative CIOs, the role of IT in the organization and more.

What advice could you give CIOs trying to align the business and IT side?

John: I think that every organization is at a somewhat different place in that regard; so, in some ways, it's enterprise specific or enterprise unique. I think a critical success factor in an enterprise, or the success of its CIO, is being able connect and understand the mission and the expectations of the first leadership team, earning a way into that circle and being part of that. I think there are opportunities for a lot of that to be done better in a lot of organizations. For the CIOs who are able to work themselves into those inner circles, I think it works -- and it works for a long time. If they're not able to, then it has a tendency not to work.

Would you suggest having people from other departments participate in that office as well?

John: I think you could. Again, what you'd end up with is a complementing set of strengths. You'd have a leader who's very good at being on top of things every day, and you'd have one -- maybe more -- of the team that has a conceptual band, and can think about the future and visualize things. You also could have someone else who's more into quick response customer service. So the CIO doesn't need to have IT expertise in every one of those aspects. In some ways, it gives you opportunity to blend other kinds of leaders into that office.

I also believe that leaders possess two things. First, they have a specific kind of capability, an expertise. Second, they have credibility -- and a part of credibility is relationships -- [and anybody they can bring into that office with credibility] that works in their favor.

So you may have someone who's brand new, but who runs deep in the latest technology and expertise, and you can companion them in a team with someone who knows the business, knows the key players, has the credibility -- and they could work together. It's almost the, "I don't have a hero; I have a composite hero, because I like this capability in that person and this capability in this person." It's that kind of idea.

In your presentation, you discussed the idea of the collaborative CIO role versus just having one top IT position. In essence, it would be the office of the CIO.

Do you think this type of structure will make things easier at organizations?

John: I do. I am absolutely convinced that's where we need to move to, and this is the model for the future. You mentioned your son is a CIO of a company.

Do you feel that there are problems that he's going to run into that you never had to deal with?

John: Oh yes. [IT] is becoming much more dynamic. The cycle time is different now -- it's shorter and faster. I've been in the business 30+ years, and there were no PCs when I started. So if you just think about the changes in technology, [it's] just been tremendous. On the other hand, there are three basic things that were critical for success 30 years ago that are just as critical for success today -- and if you ignore them, you're going to get in trouble. The three basic success factors are project management, change management and human resource management -- just basic block and tackle. Don't forget these basics, because if they aren't working right, then other things aren't going to work right.

Another thing that's increasingly different is the reliance of most enterprises on information technology just to operate. I had an experience -- not with the bureau, but in my assignment before -- that really brought that home to me. The network went down one day. All of a sudden I had a department head at my door saying, 'We're out of business. Should I send my people home? Should I have them stay? When are you going to be up?' It was the reality that when the network goes down, people can't do their work. They're just sitting there, waiting. So then you get into, 'Well, what do I do about that? What about backup? What about recovery? What about risk? What about helping people understand that they can do things on their desktops that'll take them down?' There's got to be discipline in that. And when they go down, they can't go to IS and say, 'We're down. How are you going to fix it?' IS will say, 'Remember that piece of unauthorized software you put up?'

How do you suggest a CIO learn what's going on around him? Is meeting with employees enough?

John: I think there are two basic principles. Number one: a CIO needs to be humble. What I mean by humble is simply being willing to learn and not feel like you have all the answers. I think anytime anyone feels like they have all the answers, they cross a line of arrogance that is really going to be an Achilles heel. You've got to be open to listen and learn. Whether you listen to someone or not shouldn't be based on how many stripes he or she wears.

Principle two is that you should go to the people who are closest to whatever action you want to learn about and ask them. They'll have the most accurate information. So stop by in the data center in the middle of the night and say, 'Tell me about what's going on; what are you worried about?' [This] is the kind of thing I used to do. I also used to do something I call brown baggers. I would book a conference room around noon, and say, bring your lunch and have a shot at me. By their questions, I would know what they were worried about. This format would also provide an opportunity for people to have access to me. I respond to any voicemail from anyone within 24 hours. You've got to keep your ear to the ground.

There's another derivation of that and it was hinted at this morning by Warren Bennis. He said that you can't surround yourself by people who are going to laugh too much at your jokes, tell you what you want to hear and never challenge you.

The biggest risk any leader takes is surrounding himself with people who don't push back, and just tell him what he wants to hear and do what he wants them to do. You've got to have people who will challenge you, and you've got to be managerial. Have a way you can say, 'I'm wrong, and you're right on this one.' But at the same time, you'll probably have people on your leadership team who know that you give a lot of freedom and listen to their input.

Finally, the big question of the day: do you agree with Warren McFarlan's statement that IT does matter?

John: Absolutely -- and I think it will become increasingly central to how we do things. I think it'll be harder to draw a circle around it [IT] and say what it is, because it'll become an integral part of what everyone does. But you need that integration point. That's part of the point I was trying to make: The CIO will be the integration point. It's a young discipline, but it's here.

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