Tough at the Top

It's lonely at the top, but CIOs are lonelier than most . . .

Life can be lonely at the top. Leadership has never been about mates or taking colleagues down the pub on a Friday night to blast away the clingy work cobwebs before a weekend.

For a CIO, life can be lonelier than for most. The performance of technology inside an organization often has a polarizing impact on managerial peers.

Too often, we hear reports of how those who wouldn't know a hot button from a shirt button are unhappy with the way things are run. Simultaneously, a chief information officer must battle their way forward despite being surrounded by colleagues missing the vision or strategy gene.

This is not true for every CIO, of course. And there will be a number of you saying this has never been your experience. Which is fine. But those of us who either watch or sell in this industry continue to note the ever-faster turnover of CIOs in organizations.

Without any science behind me, I would agree with most pundits' figures that a two- to three-year window of opportunity exists for a CIO before the knives come out.

In this time, they are supposed to have remedied the apparent mistakes of their predecessors, regained the confidence of an often sceptical management team and consistently produced the daily miracle: doing more with less.

And in doing so, a CIO must also lead a group bombarded with highly-spun messages from salesmen sucking on your IT budget of several if not many millions, and keep an often fractious group of IT workers happy with competitive pay rates and copious amounts of training in new technologies, hoping that they reinvest that faith in you, rather than take their new-found skill to the highest bidder.

When you consider this type of workload - and I have not even mentioned the complaints from "internal clients" and about how "IT is bloody rubbish around here", or the woodpecker-esque hammering, "what's this requisition order for?" from Finance - it is no wonder an assassin's bullet is constantly aimed, and often eventually fired, at you.

Consequently, many CIOs in their more sanguine moments confess their task is a lonely one, and they feel disengaged both from their own team and their peers. Professional support network = nil.

If this is not your experience now, it may be in your next role. Anecdotally, there seem to be few common factors to signal in advance such a tough experience. You can find these situations, or something similar, in blue-chip companies, small manufacturers and the public sector, especially state government agencies.

Turn, Turn, Turnover

If it were easy to spot such scenarios before taking a job, I am sure most individuals would back off, perhaps preferring to save any sadomasochistic tendencies for evenings, or their lunch breaks.

Vanquishing the evils of disempowerment and managerial loneliness is no simple task. It requires significant personal fortitude and a determination to change behaviour in a way that will achieve different outcomes. Once this mind-set has been established, then you need to do less doing and do more thinking.

The challenge of balancing your time between working on strategy and tactics is a reality for most CIOs. Getting the mix right is half the battle, but it takes discipline. In the daily maelstrom of deliverables and fire-fighting, strategy is something that stays in the top drawer of your desk, or in your mind. (It is no good in either, just in case you were wondering.)

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A key component of your success, and that of your IT group, is the ability to communicate - the missing link from many a technology professional.

Those with the ability to capture the imagination and even inspire have a very different experience to colleagues who profile as effective managers and administrators. The latter often suffer most when things go wrong because it appears to everyone else that their core competencies have been exposed as deficient.

CIOs need to take an honest look at the communications ability of their team and themselves. There are stand-out individuals across the country, of course, but as a group you leave much to be desired.

Too many are seduced by the temptress of technology, falling for the whiz-bangery and focusing on output rather than outcome. You are doing things, fixing things, using activity as a substitute for results.

Institutional communication is constantly lacking from IT departments and their leaders - probably the most common observation from the rest of the business. And it is one of the key reasons why IT projects fail.

A number of reasons to explain this difficulty are revealed in numerous psychological studies on what is known as "communication apprehension".

Two reports conducted in 1987 and then 1999 revealed several key factors to help explain why most of us have difficulty explaining ourselves adequately.

The genuine lack of skills in this sphere, and previous failures when we have attempted to communicate, dissuade us from sticking their head out of the trench.

Interestingly, so-called "subordinate status" also has a large impact. So, if you think you run a team where everyone can speak their mind, then think again. Others around the table may not be feeling that way at all. Similarly, it is possible that CIOs do not feel they can speak up at a C-Level gathering for the same reason.

One danger that should not be forgotten is that you can also say too much. Business author Michael Korda advises executives to be careful when they disclose issues and anxieties to colleagues, as they can be used against you.

A US psychologist, PA Zimbardo, found that non-communicators were also afraid of being conspicuous, of being judged and they feared the unpredictable feedback they might receive as a result of what they had said.

Many technology managers might be afflicted by a so-called "degree of dissimilarity". That is, they struggle to find common ground with the rest of the staff.

In a nutshell, people who find communication difficult avoid it. And from the outside looking in, that pretty much sums up most IT departments.

Being told you are a poor communicator is often difficult to stomach. It is akin to be told you are a poor car driver, as pretty much everyone reckons they are perfectly acceptable behind the wheel. That is, until you go to an advanced driving course where you realize you know nothing compared with the experts.

Communication is much the same. Being honest enough to acknowledge the challenge and then overcome it can create opportunities and success. In a world where language, not technology, is still king, life does not have to be lonely at the top.

Mark Hollands is Asia-Pacific vice-president at Gartner