On Confessions Of A Successful CIO

This week, I have the pleasure to review Confessions Of A Successful CIO – How the Best CIOs Tackle Their Toughest Business Challenges, the latest work by my colleagues Dan Roberts and Brian P. Watson. Dan first told me about this book on an earlier call in March, and since then I was intrigued and looking forward to reading it and hearing about the stories to be shared within it.

This book retells the stories of nine exceptional CIOs as they navigated their organizations through business transformations. While the story of each CIO varied, five common themes did emerge:

Bet the farm. These leaders are not afraid to take on the big risks. They’re not afraid to pitch the big ideas, because they know they can speak the language and justify the investment.

Answer the call. These leaders stepped up when they were called to action—oftentimes to help save their companies’ futures. This requires a confidence in their abilities, and in their own experiences, that not every leader has.

People come first. These leaders understand the value their people bring to their organization. They don’t treat them like a number or an interchangeable part.

Decisiveness makes all the difference. Despite their human side, these leaders understand that they need to make tough decisions that affect not only their people but also their company’s health.

Results matter. These leaders don’t do pie-in-the-sky research and development or implement the latest bright, shiny objects without knowing the business case and the long-term business value. They’re more focused on enabling and improving the business and on driving the all-important metrics that do that.

Here are some key lessons that I wanted to share from the CIO passages:

THE ANTICIPATOR: FILIPPO PASSERINl

On turning bad situations into opportunities:

He turned a bad situation into a positive one, and now he drills that ethic into the heads of everyone in his GBS organization. “It’s more than fixing the issue. It’s not about playing an even game. If you are 1-0, to use soccer language, it’s not only about how to get to 1-1, but how can you win the game?” Passerini said. “When we have an issue, we always think not just how to fix it, but how to turn a negative perception of a system problem or change management into a success story. This is another element, from a cultural standpoint, that is so critical.”

On transparency:

“Tough love is important. I learned it’s so crucial to give people full transparency about what is happening,” Passerini said. “There is always a dilemma about how much you tell employees when you have a new idea, early on, because it may generate more questions and concerns than benefits. We have come to the conclusion that we share everything immediately … things may not always materialize, but we want our people to know that if it doesn’t work, we will change again and do something different.”

Three inquisitive questions to ask before undertaking a major initiative:

Passerini—adapting guidelines Lafley established for P&G executives in his “playing to win” philosophy—asks three major questions of his team before undertaking a major initiative. The first is, what right does the organization have to win?…The second is, what needs to happen for the initiative to generate that business value?…The third is the most important: What can go wrong?

On the importance of humility:

To Passerini, relevance needs to come with a certain degree of humility. He emphasizes to his team to not act like know-it-all, but to also have the confidence to accept more responsibility and the self-assurance to propose innovative ideas to the business.

THE ROCKET SCIENTIST: REBECCA RHOADS 

On the importance of alignment:

“We started with the commitment around company-wide common processes,” Rhoads said. “Rather than going out into the company as an IT function and selling it as the IT solution, we were all aligned from a business perspective first. That allowed the IT organization to partner with every function and every aspect—all of which were also going through transformation.” All of this was taking place with the very active sponsorship of CEO Swanson, she explained. The vision was to build a business model that was not only immediately rewarding but also enduring. The vision was to take the long view.

On the importance of embracing a shared vision:

“You need to have a team that shares your vision. But then the team has to make your vision theirs’ Rhoads said. “And when they make your vision their vision, now you’re off and running. If that’s not happening, then the change isn’t happening.” Still, when Rhoads was asked if the change management or culture clash was akin to a wall, she paused—but what she said next neatly embodies her leadership style and her way of viewing challenges. “I’m not sure it always looked like a wall,” she said. “Maybe that’s it—I just don’t see it that way, so I don’t approach it that way.”

On the importance of maintaining self-confidence during the journey:

The people who put you in that job had all the confidence in the world in you. They’re asking you to take on a lot,” Rhoads said. “Maybe they’re stretching you in the role, but they’re not losing confidence, and you just have to recognize that it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be messy—the stuff in the foxhole is not what you expected. But the last thing you need to do is start to get weak-kneed and lose confidence in your ability.”

THE FIXER: STEVE BANDROWCZAK 

On the struggle against mediocrity and the fight for mastery:

And he reasserts his intolerance for mediocrity every chance he gets. Every day he tells his team they need to be better than their competitors. If they stack themselves up against the competition—in everything from quoting cycle times to receivables to capital returns—and see that they’re lacking, as Bandrowczak says, a change opportunity presents itself. And if they can master those areas and beat the other industry players, his team gets better by default.

On the delivery trifecta:

Bandrowczak also takes issue with CIOs and business leaders griping about the difficulties in prioritizing key projects. For him, it comes back to a few simple elements: the right portfolio, the right staff, and the right resources. If you don’t have those things—or can’t figure out how to understand them or access them—you’re in trouble.

THE CONDUCTOR: LYNDEN TENNISON

On strategies for combating team fatigue during multi-year initiatives:

After tackling the fear and uncertainty existing in the legacy team. Tennison also had to watch another potential issue: fatigue. Every veteran IT professional knows the stress and exhaustion that comes with working on multiyear, multiphase projects. You’ll see progress, but after a while, it just feels like running on a treadmill. So Tennison focused on two remedies. The first was a time-tested management tactic. He rotated people—including his direct reports— in and out of different positions, both inside the IT organization and out. “We gave them some new air to breathe,” he said. The second went to his core strategy for Net Control—and one that many CIOs play very differently. Tennison kept the team focused on the discrete deliverables they mapped for the fill project, not on one big-bang initiative.

THE DECIDER: WAYNE SHURTS

On the importance of learning from failure:

Right after the sales project went south, Shurts began taking stock of what went wrong. And that was one of the first and most important lessons he learned. Instead of focusing on what’s right in your plan, Shurts said, you have to be “relentless” in determining what’s wrong, and what might not work. Things will go wrong on any project—the key is to pay close attention to detail and understand that the plan you put on paper will likely be different than what’s really going to work in the field.

On the constant need for validating commercial sponsorship of projects:

Superfusion had devolved into just an IT project—not a business transformation initiative. There were chronic delays with no end in sight. Few thought it would work…In his second week as CIO, Shurts went around the room, asking the company’s senior leaders why they were still doing Superfusion. No one could give him a credible answer. In his sixth week, he pulled the plug.

On the dangers of aiming for perfection:

“Rather than designing for the rule and accommodating the exception, they were designing everything to be perfect, perfect. perfect,” he said. “So we came out and said, ‘Something better today— especially at Supervalu—was worth far more than something perfect a year from now.'”

THE REALIST: DON IMHOLZ

Guidance on outsourcing:

“The right way to do it is first, strategy, then financial analysis, and then pick your partner. If you do that, I think things will work fine,” Imholz said. “I’m not all-in one way or the other—I’m not all-in saying everything should be inside, or that you should outsource the majority of it.” Regardless, companies will continue to face challenges. And they’ll make mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes Imholz sees companies make is “to try to outsource a problem”—in other words, farming out an under-performing element of the IT operation. “That’s the wrong way to go about it,” he said. “If you can’t manage something reasonably well, then you’re not going to do terribly well outsourcing it, because management responsibility doesn’t go away.” If you’re going to outsource a problem, Imholz said, fix it first.

THE INNOVATOR: GREG SCHWARTZ

On the need for innovation to be executed to deliver true value:

When he talks to budding CIOs, he gets a lot of questions about innovation. His take: innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t mean much if the operational discipline isn’t there. It’s all about executing.

On the role of IT as an enabler of The Business Strategy:

Schwartz is emphatic about his organization’s role as an enabler of the business. “IT doesn’t own the strategy—that falls to our business partners,” Schwartz said. “But if you’re an enabler, you can influence and guide and show what’s possible and be effective change agents.”

 

I will conclude this post with the brilliant reminder by Susan Cramm, from the forward of the book:

Leading with technology is, first and foremost, about leadership. While there is no one-size-fits-all road to success, great leaders, like the ones profiled within this book, are marked by a unique set of qualities: passion and drive to make a positive difference, the ability to engage others to chart the future and define the path, and the paradoxical ability to maintain optimism and perseverance through difficult circumstances. With courageous and disciplined leadership as the foundation, the other factor that distinguishes these leaders is a level of technology smarts that is only born from experience. Technology-smart leaders know how to identify fin the words of one of the CIOs profiled here) the “art of the possible” amid the complex assortment of desired outcomes, existing capabilities and complexities, and various resources—technical and organizational—that can be applied to the transformational journey.

A recommended read for any IT leader.

 

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