Leaders at All Levels

Creating IT leaders at all levels and pushing accountability lower within the IT organization is sure to improve alignment with the business

How to involve everyone in the leadership and management of IT

Leadership is said to be a lonely job; the CIO job particularly so. CIOs often sound like the US statesman Adlai Stevenson when he was running for political office: "This has sometimes been a lonely road, because I never meet anybody coming the other way."

Businesspeople have a hard time knowing how to meet IT halfway - the people and inner workings of IT often remain a mystery. IT managers also have difficulty helping the CIO strike the right balance among innovation, service, compliance, operational continuity and the financials, because their functional boundaries obscure their perception of the big picture.

Yet it's possible for CIOs to position both their business counterparts and IT managers as partners in IT by redefining their respective roles. This article is the fourth and final in a series examining promising concepts to improve business-IT alignment. So far, we have equipped Ernest, a real CIO at a large company, with four powerful ways to manage the demand and supply of IT. It's time now for Ernest to ensure that these concepts yield results - by placing them in the hands of the right people.

Mini-CIOs Everywhere

A big part of Ernest's job as a CIO lies in trying to connect with those in the business who drive IT demand and weigh in on IT decisions and performance. In doing so, Ernest has run himself ragged. He needs leaders at all levels in his IT organization to influence and collaborate with their business counterparts.

However, many IT professionals tend to operate as lone guns who don't relate well to others - around 40 percent of the IT population (nearly twice the percentage of the general population) according to The Human Dynamics of IT Teams, by consultants from Booz Allen Hamilton and OKA. Basic attributes can be hired and nurtured but not instilled, and the tendency to work alone cannot be trained or coached away. Ernest needs to handpick current and future leaders by identifying critical behavioural traits, and use an experience-based development approach in which leaders are "grown" and not "tested".

Delivery of IT services must occur without Ernest's frequent involvement. From an organizational perspective, he must structure IT so that his first-level leaders are accountable for end-to-end service and project delivery (and possibly his second-level leaders too, depending on the size of the organization). To do so, he should organize the IT group in a manner similar to the business. He can place "mini-CIOs" within each business unit or function to manage the entire plan, build, run process and represent the IT portfolio for their business customers.

IT Without Boundaries

Creating IT leaders at all levels and pushing accountability lower within the IT organization is sure to improve alignment with the business. But there is more that Ernest can do. Gartner's view of the future calls for creating "boundaryless IT", in which the IT organization shares its work with strategic partners and the business.

Creating strategic partnerships from the current mishmash of independent contractors will help Ernest focus internal resources, access capabilities that cannot be developed internally, and secure flexible, affordable and high-quality resources to meet variations in demand.

Rather than continue the legacy of traditional IS organizations that jealously protect the provisioning of all IT services (I'm paraphrasing Marianne Broadbent and Ellen Kitzis in their book The New CIO Leader), Ernest can instead:

• Embrace the "rogue" IT groups that exist within business units and tie them into activities occurring in his organization.

• Position the business to take the lead on the management and analytical project roles. Ernest can do this safely by establishing competency requirements for IT skills and sponsoring education and development programs.

• Ensure that IT systems are delivered with functionality that allows the business to do much of the ongoing maintenance work (for example, table updates, business rules and process flow). Ultimately, business-IT alignment requires upgraded IT leaders who are accountable for delivering the full portfolio of services. These leaders are most effective when they view their organization as a network consisting of business partners (with whom they share the work of IT) and external sourcing partners (whom they leverage for specialty expertise). Alignment mechanisms are of little value to defensive CIOs who blame others for their difficulties and prefer to walk the road alone.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, a California-based executive coaching firm

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Reader Q&A

Q: It's hard to develop leaders in today's environment of outsourcing when many IT staffs are at skeleton levels and spread too thin. It will be even harder in the future since fewer students are entering IT programs. How can the average CIO who is head down in day-to-day IT look up enough to create a leadership development program?

A: The busy CIO needs to consider the work itself as the development program. Organizations get into trouble if they don't plan and sequence developmental experiences in line with employees' career objectives and don't demonstrate willingness to transition people into new experiences. (This may or may not require job changes.) Strategic sourcing and declining enrolments don't have to affect the leadership pipeline as long as the best work is retained internally and leaders are recruited from both within and outside the IT organization.

Q: Please address an experienced-based development approach in more depth.

A: Expertise and wisdom is gained on the job; classroom education, while beneficial for certain types of skill and knowledge development, is of limited use in developing leaders. The key to developing a leadership pipeline is to identify promising employees relatively early in their careers, provide the right on-the-job experiences at the right times, and surround them with coaches and mentors (hopefully in the form of supervisors). For more information about the critical IT development experiences, please see my column titled "The Unnatural Selection Process for CIOs" in the August 2004 issue of CIO.

Q: You say that "mini-CIOs" should manage the entire plan-build-run process. But then you say CIOs position the business to take the lead on management and analytical project roles. Who should be responsible for running IT services - IT or the business?

A: The IT department should ensure that the company's IT investment goes to the highest and best use. It is not necessary for the IT department to directly provide all the services to fulfil this mission. In other words, CIOs should focus on ensuring IT is done well rather than trying to do it all themselves.