How to be a vertical leader

Leadership is said to be a lonely job; the CIO job particularly so. CIOs often sound like 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 (go to to see the series in full). 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 behavioral 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.

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