The worst CIO excuse: ‘Above my pay grade’


At a recent seminar, I overheard a CIO make the comment that setting corporate strategy was above his pay grade. There wasn’t time to fully explore the circumstances of that CIO’s relationship with the rest of his senior management team, but it was evident that he’d given up trying to make it work. 

Above my pay grade, and the mentality that it fosters, marginalizes the IT leader. No question that in many organizations, the CIO is considered the “Chief Techie” by the leaders around the C-level table. The “C” in CIO is ceremonial, as the CIO reports to the CFO and doesn’t sit at the executive table.   But accepting the realities of the situation and working within them is quite a different than giving up and playing the victim. 

A good place to start is your management style. You’ve learned that you don’t take decisions to your boss or the executive committee; rather you take a firm recommendation forward for their concurrence. You frame your proposals in language they understand – business benefits and risks – not three-letter acronyms. Of course, you’ve done your homework and can outline, if asked, what alternatives were considered and why this one is the best fit for the company’s goals, even if the marketing VP’s brother-in-law works for a company that sells a “better and cheaper” product. So if you’re thinking above your pay grade in the executive suite, how do you treat your own staff when you’re the decision maker?

Early in my career I had a manager who taught me a valuable lesson: a manager is only as good as his people. This manager demanded the best from his staff, not by pep talks and banging his fist on the table, but by delegating and trusting his people. Whether things went well or not, he always accepted accountability for his team’s actions. If that 3-AM-judgement-call turned out to be the wrong one in the cold morning light, so be it. It was his call, even if he hadn’t participated in making it. 

We knew that, understood the confidence our manager placed in us, and did our best to not let him down. We had standard procedures and processes, but knew that it was OK to do something different when the circumstances didn’t quite fit the mould. Our manager encouraged us to think and act above our pay grade. 

That’s not to say that there weren’t consequences if someone didn’t take appropriate actions, but remediation was focused on what – not who – went wrong, and the how it should have been dealt with as a learning experience for the whole team. The focus was on improving the team, not on “fixing” an individual. The clear message was to that doing good job required thinking, not just about the operational procedures or hiding behind them, but about what’s the best result. Thinking above your pay grade.   

A number of years ago I managed a large, multi-year project to re-implement a highly visible network used every day by millions with a team of three project managers, each responsible for a stream of the project’s activities. As with any large project, there were some “bumps in the road” that required thought and adjustment – all part of the normal project process. Then we hit a showstopper.   Mid-way through the project, we found that a basic assumption for the key deliverable was wrong. The project manager responsible for that stream wasn’t making any headway in finding a solution or alternative; he was focused on his job and what he could do within his mandate. He couldn’t recognize that the successful completion of the entire project was jeopardized: he wasn’t thinking above his pay grade.

One of the other two project managers was very young and bright. She came in on Monday morning: “I didn’t sleep much this weekend. This problem isn’t going away and if we don’t fix it, we’re not going to make it.” She then outlined a plan for how to re-work that project stream to create a new set of deliverables, ones that would address the roadblock and the changes needed to the other streams to maintain the overall schedule. 

When she was done, she asked what I thought. Her plan was unconventional, not by the book, and would use most of the contingency budget. Yet, more importantly, it was a plan that addressed the roadblock and dealt with the impacts on scheduling across the entire project. My answer was to ask when she could get started. When she replied: “but that’s not my area!”, I responded: “It is now – go home and get some sleep. You can tell me what you need tomorrow morning.” 

This project manager was thinking above her pay grade. She looked at the entire project holistically and developed an approach to resolve the problem. Rather than what could have been yet another failed IT project, it was highly successful. All of those millions of daily network users never saw a change, and we delivered the promised ROI. 

Later I told her that I really didn’t know whether her idea would work or not, but decided that without any better options, it made sense to try it. Were we lucky? Yes, if you believe that you make your own luck. Managing risk includes deciding when taking another path, while risky, is more likely to be successful than blindly following the rules which may lead to failure. She was thinking above her pay grade – the leadership role was in letting her know it was the right thing to do. 

Getting your people to think above their pay grade is critical to a leader’s success. The CIO can’t be the most technical, shouldn’t be involved in every decision, or always have the right answer. A good leader encourages his people to think above their pay grade by listening to their ideas, using these whenever possible, and learning from them. Maybe some of these ideas aren’t practical or experience has shown them to be flawed, but be open and receptive. 

If that means one or more of your staff shows that they can do your job better than you, that’s a blessing, not a threat. Give them part (or all) of it. You will finally be able to work on those things you complain you never have time for. 

Of course, your boss may feel quite the opposite about his relationship with you, but that isn’t an excuse for how you manage. Sooner or later, the other C-level managers will figure it out and recognize who is thinking above their pay grade.

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