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Leading by letting go

Leading by letting go

People support best what they help build

In the course of my career, I've seen my share of dysfunctional IT organizations. One of my most difficult assignments was as CIO for a large county government. It was also one of the best lessons in what it takes to energize IT professionals and serve clients ever more responsively.

As CIO, I found myself the head of a centralized IT function that was rapidly decentralizing. County agencies were creating their own IT support functions, causing some centralized IT functions and resources to go unused. Agencies that were still being supported by the central IT operation found their costs rising, and the duplication of IT resources meant taxpayer dollars were being used inefficiently.

Suboptimal? You bet.

Needing to improve things, I set out to gather the facts. I soon found out that I had a lot to learn.

First, I met with clients who had so far stuck with centralized IT and those who had defected. What, I asked each one, can we do to keep your business or win it back? It wasn't a question any of them was in a mood to answer.

Instead, in meeting after meeting, the clients unloaded on me. They told me how for the better part of the previous 10 years they had been unable to routinely communicate with anyone in the centralized IT function. In fact, they had never met with the management team to address IT support strategies or any aspect of the planning, building or running of IT. All I could do was shut up and listen. My attentiveness at least elicited a few comments like "OK, you're new. Let's see what you can do for us."

And this turned out to be the fun part of my fact-finding initiative. At least these people were telling me things I needed to hear.

In my many meetings with my IT professional support staff, questions like "What do you need to be more effective and productive?" and "What would you do if you could do anything to improve our services or avoid cost?" were met with complete silence.

Doing everything I could to eke out a response, I was told things like "We don't need anything" and "We can't decide for management." There was no energy or enthusiasm. Was it fear? Was it me? Was it my predecessor?

My direct reports filled me in. For six years, they said, the management style of the entire IT function could be summed up in the word "control." Nothing was to be communicated to anyone outside the IT function unless the CIO personally approved it. All initiatives needed the CIO's approval, and anyone who championed an initiative that did not reflect positively on the IT function was punished.

Naturally, most IT staffers had decided that the risk of taking any initiative was too high. Those who had tried and had their head handed to them were certainly not going to repeat the experience.

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