Opinion: 10 secrets of bad CIOs

In my decade as a CIO, I’ve seen a lot of turnover in the IT industry. Each time I hear about a CIO being fired, I ask around to learn the root cause. Here’s my list of the top 10 ways to be a bad CIO.

1. Start each meeting with a chip on your shoulder. If a CIO presupposes that every request will be unreasonable and every interaction unpleasant, then every meeting will be unproductive. I find that listening to naysayers, understanding common ground and developing a path forward works with even the most difficult customers.

2. Set priorities yourself. Although the CIO should make some budget decisions — for instance, on infrastructure maintenance — customer-driven governance committees should help set the priorities for application development. Good intentions won’t prevent mismatches between customer expectations and IT resource allocation.

3. Protect your staff at the expense of the organization. I work hard to prevent my lean and mean staff from becoming bony and angry. But I can’t just say no to customers, so I work with them to balance resources, scope and timing. When compliance issues or strategic opportunities suddenly arise, I do my best to redirect resources to these new priorities, explaining that existing projects will slow down. It’s important to tolerate some ambiguity, accept change, support the institution and, if a resource problem evolves, ask for help.

4. Put yourself first. Being a CIO is a lifestyle, not a job. Weekends and nights are filled with system upgrades. Pagers and cell phones go off at inopportune moments. On vacations, I get up an hour before my family and go to bed an hour after them to catch up on e-mail and the day’s events. It’s far worse to ignore it all for a week.

5. Indulge in tantrums. Walking into the CEO’s office and saying that you will quit unless your budget is increased does not win the war. The CIO should be a member of senior management, and all resource decisions should be made by consensus, even if the outcome is not always positive for IT.

6. Hide your mistakes. A network outage my organization experienced in 2002 resulted in what was called “the worst IT disaster in health care history.” Since I shared my lessons learned with the press and our customers, everyone understood the events that caused the problem. Transparency may be challenging in the short term, but it always improves the situation in the long term.

7. Burn bridges. It’s a small world, and it’s best to be cordial and professional in every encounter. Before I was CIO, I made a presentation to the IT steering committee about the need to embrace the Web. A senior IT leader told me that the committee didn’t care what I had to say since I was not an important stakeholder. A year later, I became CIO, and that senior leader left the organization within a week.

8. Don’t give your stakeholders a voice. I fill my schedule with meetings in the trenches to learn what is and is not working. I never shoot the messenger when I’m told that our products or services need improvement. A CIO can earn a lot of respect just by listening.

9. Cling to obsolete technologies. The CIO should never be the roadblock to adopting new technologies and ideas. If open source, Web 2.0 or Apple products are the way the world is going, the CIO should be the first in line to test them.

10. Think inside the box. Facebook as a rapid application development platform? Empowering users to do self-service data mining? Piloting thin-client devices and flexible work arrangements? Although exploring new ideas will not always result in a breakthrough, it’s the only way to innovate.

Avoid these behaviours, and you may be embraced by the organization for many years to come.

John D. Halamka is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, CIO of the Harvard Clinical Research Institute and a practicing emergency physician. You can contact him at jhalamka@caregroup.harvard.edu.

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