The M.I.A. CIO

You are in a funk. Your work has turned into a grind, your calendar is out of control, and issues are growing into problems. The focus and energy that you once had are dissipating. People in your organization have noticed–they describe you as distracted, disengaged and tense. You are the missing-in-action CIO–present in body but not in mind and spirit.

You are not alone. Ninety percent of professionals are living a less than purposeful existence–either in a state of disengagement, distraction or procrastination–according to Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, authors of “Beware the Busy Manager” (Harvard Business Review, February 2002). What state you find yourself in, say the authors, depends on the relative levels of two factors: focus, which is “the ability to zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion,” and energy, defined as “vigor that is fueled by intense personal commitment.”

Most likely, you started off in your current position with a strong sense of purpose and the ability to see problems and solutions in stark relief. You defined and tackled your laser-sharp agenda with limitless energy and enthusiasm. But as time passed, you lost interest or ran into obstacles or got overloaded and joined the suffering 90 percent.

Great leaders understand how to renew their leadership agenda. They have the self-awareness and self-discipline to identify and overcome their malaise. Many of us have used job-hopping as a primary means of leadership renewal. Although crude (in that it does not force you to face the root causes of your leadership malaise), it is effective–as long as there is a strong job market and you are a hot commodity. Now more than ever, given the weak economy and aging demographic, the ability to renew your focus and energy and regain your purposeful footing is important. If you are ready to take back your job, here’s what you should do.

Make the time. It should come as no surprise to learn that purposeful leaders schedule time on their calendars to think and reflect. Many hectic managers find this task almost impossible and require outside assistance from a trusted adviser to help them do calendar analysis and surgery. Since your schedule consists primarily of meetings, the easiest way to make time is to reduce the frequency and duration of meetings (try saying, “When someone asks for one hour, they get half an hour”), eliminate certain meetings (“I don’t meet with vendors”) and activities (“My assistant answers my phone and reviews e-mails” or “I read e-mails and check voice mail once a day”), and delegate project work that you have picked up along the way.

Open your eyes. Balanced feedback will motivate and sharpen your focus and build your commitment on the issues and opportunities that need to be addressed. Go regularly to the front lines of your organization (where your employees interact with their customers and suppliers) to assess your positioning and identify opportunities around shareholder value, customer service and cost-effectiveness.

Get others involved. Leaders aren’t expected to have all the answers, and leadership is not a solitary pursuit. A collaborative process of defining goals, strategies, priorities and tactics will strengthen commitment, increase your influence and energize everyone involved. In addition, if you are risk-averse, sharing priorities and responsibilities will go a long way to quiet your fears about the career impact of setbacks and failures. For more information on strategy-making, see my previous column, “Strategic Fitness.”

Express yourself. Someone once said, it is easier to maintain your focus and energy if your career expresses who you are rather than what you do. Look at a CIO who is an adrenaline junkie (with hobbies like car racing, flying and downhill skiing). The CIO role is going to drive him crazy unless he figures out a way to keep initiatives on a fast cycle time and lets people with a longer attention span run operations.

Work with a net. If the prospect of losing your job makes you queasy, you need a safety net that gives you the freedom to define your leadership focus and approach. Some of you are blessed with a mental safety net (your outlook is that “everything is going to be OK”), while the rest need something more tangible–safety nets that ensure that your financial needs will be met. There’s nothing like money in the bank and the ability to earn a living as a contractor or consultant to give you the courage to take risks, make hard decisions and negotiate effectively.

The leadership renewal process I’ve outlined here requires that you leave your “old” job, assess your effectiveness, and replace yourself with a more effective successor. Do yourself and your organization a favor: Mentally fire yourself today and walk in tomorrow like it’s your first day on the job.

A Brief Q&A

Q: Your article describes my situation perfectly. I am a CIO for a very successful financial services company. My job is very challenging, rewarding and boring. I have built a great working relationship with my boss (the CEO) and other executives. However, I am finding myself losing more interest day after day. I want to quit my job altogether and join a small startup where I can expand my responsibility over other areas such as sales and marketing, product development, and operations. Do I exhibit typical signs of burnout, or am I just going through a midlife, midcareer crisis?

A: Don’t ignore your current feelings, but don’t change for change’s sake. Base any actions on insights on your skills, knowledge, talents, motivators, likes and dislikes, and practical considerations regarding financial security, prior experience, networking and reputation. I am currently working with a client who wants a change but is security-minded given his family responsibilities. We have identified his career goal and opportunities within his current company that will help move him forward. For more information on defining your career destination and plan, please read one of my previous columns, “Is This Job All There Is?”.

Q: A couple of things are missing from your list of what to do. A focus on family and friends is more important than spending all my energy at work. Those are the true lasting relationships. It’s there that I gain my energy to work. My family members also help me focus on work because of the importance of supporting them. Also, you neglected outside interests; hobbies, sports and so on are how people recharge themselves. Life isn’t all about work.

A: Congratulations! It sounds to me like you are a proud member of the purposeful 10 percent. In your case, you express yourself by ensuring that your work supports your desire to nurture and support your family and foster relationships. My guess is that your focus on relationships is something that is part of your personal DNA and that you are able to express it on a day-to-day basis in your job. It’s true that life isn’t all about work. It’s also true that if you are spending 10 hours a day doing things that don’t feed your soul, you will ultimately join the suffering 90 percent.

Q: Most of us are disengaged, distracted or procrastinating. Can anybody really avoid that? I don’t know anyone in that 10 percent group.

A: It is true that the purposeful 10 percent are the enviable minority. Regaining purposeful footing is difficult because the catalyst for change must be created internally. The renewal process requires the self-awareness to identify the need for change, the self-discipline to work through the discovery process, and the self-confidence to put your insights into action.