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Leadership Under the Influence

Leadership Under the Influence

Inexperience, old habits and fear can lead to unnecessary risk taking by the CIO. Avoid this trap by following these simple rules for safe and effective IT leadership

IT leadership is never easy, but some people make it harder than it has to be. This point was brought home to me after I witnessed a recent car accident. As if driving isn't dangerous enough, a young man used speed to navigate a turn and ended up hitting another car. Clearly in the wrong, he became belligerent and tried to blame the other driver. Unfortunately for him, the other driver was a fire-fighter with close ties to the local police. Once the police arrived at the scene, they conducted a breathalyzer test and arrested the young man for driving under the influence.

Clearly, the decision to drink and drive led the young man to a series of bad choices. IT leadership has its own versions of DUI that can result in near misses, accidents and fatalities. These events are often dissected in the trade press and discussed at conferences by CIOs who, even as they say: "How could they be so stupid?" are also thinking: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Sadly, I see IT leaders take unnecessary risks all the time

Sadly, I see IT leaders take unnecessary risks all the time. Many are leading under the undue influence of inexperience, hubris, fear, old habits, technology hype, vendor pressure and organizational politics. It's ironic that as a profession, we have enough collective experience to identify behaviours that ensure the success of our organizations and our careers. However, these rules are rarely written down so that IT organizations and those who lead them can align their behaviours accordingly.

To help you do so, let us review some of my favourite rules for safe and effective IT leadership.

Build and lead a strong, credible IT organization. Don't be the leader who has 22 direct reports and no viable successors. Spend half of your strategic planning effort to get the right people in the right roles working together the right way. Select people with integrity who can work with others, are motivated more by making a difference than making a name, are your professional peers and who complement your capabilities. Organize IT similarly to the business. Expect more from your staff and delegate freely, but check carefully and be there to make sure their failures aren't fatal. Never fire for mistakes but for the inability to learn from experience.

Foster good relationships. Don't manage from within IT. Spend some time learning the business by observing those in customer service. Connect with stakeholders regularly. Don't worry about what you are going to say; focus on what you are going to ask to understand their goals, motivations and concerns. Don't just be present, be omnipresent with business partners.

Forge a shared IT vision, strategy and tactical objectives. Don't wait for the business to supply a strategy; work with the business and derive it together in an ongoing and collaborative manner, weighing all the implications. Do your homework to understand the business processes and data that drive your organization and the technology that could enable strategic change in your business. Finally, define business and IT decision rights so governance processes work.

Deliver on time, on budget. Don't attempt innovation using waterfall project development approaches that have big budgets and long time frames; plan projects for nine months and cancel at 12 months. Don't overload your organization with too many projects; define a top limit for project spending based on what your business can afford.

Develop quality solutions. Don't let project managers "roll their own" when it comes to project management, development methods, technologies, compliance and continuity. Credibility is earned in cents but spent in dollars. Introducing process disciplines and standardization will require significant withdrawals from your credibility bank, so set your aspirations and approaches accordingly.

Realize business value from IT investments. Don't think you're delivering value because you have a prioritization process based on strategic fit and financial contributions. Use operational value measurements (cycle time, sales calls) that are measured during and after the project, and hold business partners accountable for demonstrating value realization.

Leaders need to help other leaders practise responsible IT. The best way to do this? Define safe IT leadership rules collaboratively with the IT leadership team, and hold individuals accountable for supporting the behaviours and helping others do the same.

In the same way that good friends take the keys from those who are drinking, colleagues must hold each other accountable for demonstrating responsible IT leadership in spite of the negative influences surrounding them.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of California-based executive coaching firm Valuedance. You can e-mail feedback to susan@valuedance.com

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