An effective CIO: fast company or armed insurgency?

Sitting in the office of the CEO of a large company, you’re just one step away from appointment as his CIO. You’ve been aggressively recruited from the outside (different company, different industry), based on your strong reputation for building positive relationships between technical and managerial people, and the recruiter’s told you that after extensive interviews, “You’re number one on a short list of one.”

And here’s what you’ve learned so far. This is an IT shop in deep trouble: last week the CEO told you that he’s “been reading articles about the imminent death of IT organizations, and that the death of IT in this company was a near thing.” In fact, he says in confidence, “I looked very closely at outsourcing the entire IT operation and I asked for three very hush-hush proposals from big outsourcers for just that reason.”

After much deliberation, he’s decided he’s going to give the IT organization, maybe with you as CIO, one more chance.

Through your own informal intelligence gathering process (smart guy that you are, you check sources outside of the official channels), you’ve learned that the business units are angry and disillusioned with the service they’ve received to date from IT, believing that the IT people “never really understand what we want.”

On the other hand, your digging shows that IT has been delivering, for the most part, benefits consistent with the service level agreements put in place by the previous CIO (who was either fired or left in disgust, it isn’t clear) and the business units IT supported.

Many of the company’s IT people think the client base (pejoratively referred to as “our dimwit users” by a small but vocal minority) is spoiled, and that “not only do they not know what they want but they also make unreasonable demands.”

So IT dislikes the inconsistent and demanding business people they work with, and the business people think that IT is made up of a bunch of technical divas and petulant propeller heads.

And the CEO came close to pulling the pin on the whole thing.

And despite everything, you really want to be the new CIO.

“Before I offer you the job,” says the CEO, “I have something to tell you, and I have something to ask you.” You swallow hard.

“First, I want to tell you that my primary expectation here is positive change. If IT and the business groups are still at each other’s throat in 18 months (he originally said 12 months, but cooler heads prevailed), I’ll shut down the whole IT organization. I’ve read the riot act to the business units managers too, but I’ve got to say that I’ll be making my CIO primarily accountable for success or failure.

“Secondly, I have something to ask you: when you were here talking to me last week, I noticed that you had a two sets of photocopies with you in your briefcase, thoroughly marked up and underlined in red ink. When I asked you about them, you said that ‘In terms of the work that you expect to do as our lead IT executive, one of them was indispensable, and the other one was rubbish,’ but you didn’t say which one was which.”

He continued “I was watching you carefully, and unless I’m terribly mistaken (which he wasn’t), one set of photocopies was chapter one of Che Guevara’s book on Guerrilla Warfare, and the other was an article from the October 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine called ‘Change Insurgents.'”

“In the week since you were last here, I’ve acquired and read copies of both of them – and I agree with you: as far as what I’m looking for in a CIO, one is invaluable and one is indeed rubbish.

What I’m really curious about, is which one you think is which?”

And then he waits for your answer.

So it comes down to this: Che Guevara or Fast Company – before you answer, your mind goes back over the two dog-eared photocopies you’re still carrying in your briefcase. Knowing that getting the job or not will depend on what you say next, you answer clearly and strongly: “No question – the indispensable one is…”

To be continued next time. Readers, please let me know what you think: Che or Fast Company? Send you thoughts to

Hanley is an IT professional in Calgary.