Success and the CIO – Part II

In the first part of “Success & the CIO” we examined the dual role of the CIO: co-leading business change and managing information technology. In this second and concluding part, we discuss ideas that can help improve the effectiveness of the CIO function. In particular, we look at a model for understanding the four critical management areas that the CIO must focus on. The model is called ‘The CIO’s Compass’.

To be successful, the CIO needs to manage the four quadrants of his or her “compass”.

North is the domain of senior management and organizational strategy. The CIO needs to manage effectively in this quadrant to ensure an understanding of organizational strategy and drivers impacting decisions. This quadrant also provides a forum for raising the awareness of IT and its potential impact on the organization.

East is the domain of the internal clients. Here the CIO may be reliant on client-facing managers from the IT department; nevertheless, he or she must play a role to ensure the right initiatives are undertaken, projects are being managed successfully, and day-to-day operational services are provided to clients’ satisfaction.

South is “the shop”, where the work gets done – projects are executed and day-to-day services and support are provided. Managing in this domain entails getting things done through other people, and involves setting direction, recruiting and motivating the right people, as well as having appropriate measurements in place to monitor performance and take corrective action when necessary.

West is the domain of external customers and suppliers, and it is of growing importance to the Compass model. Here is also where the CIO represents the IT organization to the external community.

In essence the CIO must realize that as he or she rises through the ranks, the job becomes less functional and more dependent on building and maintaining solid relationships in these four quadrants.

Managing north

North is a very important quadrant and one where many CIOs do not put sufficient time and focus. Here is where the important decisions get made. And understanding how that decision-making process works and how to play into it effectively is vital for success. Often, however, senior managers do not think CIOs have a grasp on the organization’s strategic direction, while CIOs often feel isolated from corporate planning.

There is one golden rule regarding this quadrant: do not venture North unless your flanks are reasonably secure. If senior management is getting flak from the other quadrants, then you will not get much air time to discuss strategic opportunities.

At this level, CIOs must earn their spurs. Even if the CIO is carrying a VP or Director title, it means nothing at this level until the CIO has demonstrated the he or she belongs and has earned the time senior management are willing to give. Therefore, first and foremost, the CIO must be a businessperson, with a sound understanding of organizational operations, along with their economic, competitive and financial drivers. In other words, the CIO must learn to become a strategic advisor, engaging senior management in business terms they can understand. In addition, gaining a sense of the short-term and long-term business rhythms provides a sense of timing – particularly, when to bring forward important proposals.

When ‘managing North’, it is essential to form relationships individually with each of the executives. Lumping them together into a Steering Committee and having quarterly meetings will not suffice. Learning individual management styles and approaches to decision-making helps the CIO sponsor proposals successfully through these decision-makers. In addition, seeking out a personal mentor from these ranks is invaluable in learning how to successfully navigate through these channels.

Showing that you truly understand the end-to-end organizational landscape and have no bias towards any embedded silos is essential in gaining credibility so that you have a voice in decision-making and priority setting. It is also important to manage expectations and ensure you are promising what is possible.

Dealing with executive naivety on the supposed simplicity of information technology can be a major problem. This is sometimes best overcome through analogies with other parts of the business, which seem inherently simple to outsiders but are indeed complex after you scrape away the first few surface layers.

Senior managers tend to know instinctively if they are being fed the straight goods. No matter how painful the explanation may be, it is important to be truthful with them. And above all else, avoid “techie talk”. In the North quadrant, the terminology is strictly “discounted cash flow”, “EBITDA”, “earnings per share”, etc.

Managing east

Here, the CIO may be largely dependent on some of his or her managers who have client-facing roles. Also in this quadrant not all business user-groups are created equal in terms of their level of IT sophistication and their willingness to look beyond their individual silos when considering project priorities. Other variations may occur in their willingness to partner with the CIO (rather than form a client/vendor relationship) and their need or desire to follow corporate technology standards.

To top it all off, a typical client perspective of IT is usually dependent upon the timing of the last application failure, operations mishap, or project slippage. Usually, these are the reasons for the rogue development efforts undertaken by client departments. Needless to say, the challenges in managing East are significant.

Role and responsibility descriptions (sometimes called RACI charts) and Service Level Agreements will partially address forming effective relationships with business groups. Much of the value in these instruments, however, is not so much the resultant product, but the discussions and levels of understanding that are attained during their development.

During my stint as a CIO, I found it important to spend time with client groups, discussing not only their issues and opportunities, but also raising their level of understanding of how my IT group operated – what we were there to do, how we go about doing it, and how to effectively do business with us. Apart from the awareness they gained on what was involved in building and operating industrial-strength systems, they also realized that we were part of their team, trying to attain the same business goals and working as hard as they did. Again, managing expectations, focusing on true business needs and not over-committing are important traits.

Often it is important to find creative solutions to issues that have developed between the CIO and one or more of the client groups. I found this approach to be far more effective than causing continued confrontations. There is usually more than one way to attain the right results. If on occasion you do have to ‘go to the wall’, make sure your facts are thoroughly researched and critiqued. Above all, as you venture East, realize that your patience and emotional control will often be tested. You will need a thick skin, as often IT is the most convenient scapegoat for things going wrong.

Managing south

South is the IT shop quadrant, and here the CIO should have maximum control (theoretically). Unless the shop is running like a well oiled machine, however, the overworked CIO will not have much time to effectively manage the other quadrants.

From informal interviews with CIOs, I have heard that managing South typically takes from 30 percent to 50 percent of their time. Here, the CIO is focused on setting direction, attracting and developing great people, and getting the work done through others. If you, as the CIO, are continually in problem-solving or fire-fighting mode, you may think that you are visible and being most effective, but indeed you are not. When a manager is solving a problem, the best he or she can do is re-establish a state of normalcy. Solving operational issues does not move any process or initiative forward.

What are some of the keys to managing South and getting things done through other people? First, there are some fundamental ‘block and tackle’ processes in the IT service delivery, project management, infrastructure management and applications sustainment environments. If these are broken or not being followed in a disciplined manner, you are in for a number of sleepless nights and problem-solving adventures.

Raising the level of business awareness in the IT Department (even down to the rank and file) is a continual challenge, but so important. During my time as a CIO, I was amazed at some of the decisions made by low-level professionals that could disrupt business. If the individuals involved had thought things through from a business perspective, they no doubt would have chosen alternate paths to maintain service stability. I have seen CIOs who are very good at encouraging this business perspective in their departments and manage to entice business leaders to talk to IT groups on a regular basis. We need to bear in mind, however, that this is a continual process, not a one-time endeavor.

The key to maximizing your leverage as a CIO is your management team – ensuring they are pulling together in the desired direction, ensuring roles, responsibilities and accountabilities are clearly understood, and empowering them to get on with their respective jobs through developing their leadership abilities. It is easy to fall into the trap of undermining your management team (or individuals on it) by going down into the trenches and giving out directives. There are occasions when this action is required, but doing it persistently will drive both your employees and your management team nuts and, coincidently, decrease the time you have to spend in other quadrants.

Excellence and professionalism in service delivery usually result from the quality of the ‘gene pool’ you have in your shop. Don’t be afraid of smart people! They can return dividends in both delivery and your reputation. By the same token, accept the fact there will be a mixture of capabilities and willingness among staff. Often managers find it difficult to work with the poor performer who seems to have the talent but needs to have the right coaching to reach their true potential. As well, managers often find it difficult to face up to the fact that in an individual doesn’t have the talent to perform to expectations. Moving someone out of the business is one of the toughest things to do, but often the best course of action for both the organization as well as the individual. Grooming your management team to face up to these people challenges is a big success factor in managing South.

Managing west

The West quadrant is growing in significance on the CIO’s compass. Here is where the organization’s customers, suppliers and strategic partners can be found. Building electronic linkages with these external organizations and redesigning appropriate business processes can drive significant benefits. However, to exploit these opportunities, the CIO must be closely aligned with the internal business partners who perform those functions. In other words, there is no point in visiting a supplier and discussing supply chain management without the appropriate Materials Management Director along.

West is also the source of external data, different analysis techniques and strategic advice which can provide the intelligence to generate ideas on how to improve a number of management areas, from improved processes and cost control through to innovative uses of technology that may be applicable to your business. Sources such as the vendor community, IT research groups, benchmarking firms, and IT leadership forums can provide these insights.

West is the potential source for new bright stars for your IT organization. In addition, who knows, it might be the source of your next career move. Always remember, however, that you are representing your organization to the outside world in this quadrant.

The CIO compass in perspective

There has been an underlying theme in managing all four quadrants – communications. Perhaps CIO should also stand for “Communicate Information Often”!

Furthermore, addressing the four quadrants is but a start. The successful CIO, or for that matter any successful leader, realizes there are two dimensions to the job: leadership – establishing direction and getting people to follow; and management – planning and then achieving results through others.

Both of these are disciplines unto themselves and the successful CIO knows they require focus and skills development. Most of all, however, these skills need to be built on a solid base of core values and individual attributes that are key to any senior role.

Finally, building solid business relationships is key; it’s not merely playing politics. The latter is manifest when an individual puts his or her own self-interest ahead of the organization. Building relationships is about being effective in your efforts for advancing the organization as a whole – for getting done what you believe is the right thing.

Graham J. McFarlane is a Calgary-based Director of Western Management Consultants, specializing in the management of information technology. He has worked with CIOs as a management consultant since 1978. He can be reached at

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