Leadership and the CIO

For CIOs, leadership has many facets, from building a great IT shop to leading technology innovation to supporting the organization’s leader. At CIO Canada’s 2005 Annual Roundtable, seven Canadian IT executives share their views on what it takes to excel at the difficult art of IT leadership.

Atkins: Do leadership styles vary from organization to organization, and what type of leadership style works best?

Long: Leadership styles do vary by organization. Sometimes that is a reflection of the state that the organization is in, be it a company or a department – whether it’s developing, whether it’s maturing, whether it has large work underway. When there are deadlines, obviously things can’t always be done by consensus. My best experiences have been in organizations where there is a peer group of executives using the collaborative style – where there’s a lot of trust and respect amongst the individuals. It doesn’t always happen because of personalities and people but that’s the leadership style I’ve seen produce the most innovative ideas while enabling the organization’s culture to develop and move forward.

Atkins: What role does the CIO play in overall business strategy development for the organization?

French: The CIO should definitely be involved in helping determine strategy for the organization. If the company is considering expanding to a new building, or a new centre, there are many technology-related factors that need to be considered, so that the new facility can become an integral part of the existing network. Lack of fibre in the building, for example, could have a huge negative impact on the connectivity. So it’s very important for CIOs to be involved in business strategy development. We can prevent bad decisions from being made.

Adamo: We have to lose the chip, the feeling that we’re not treated equally, and simply act as an equal corporate officer around the table. The CIO must also act as a responsible business owner and, wherever possible, lead by example. As well, the CIO should provide formal input into the business strategy. At WSIB, we do a formal environmental scan of the technology industry and technology usage within our industry. We make the scan relevant to our particular industry, distilling down what’s important, and we provide that as formal input to the business strategy. The last piece, which is a little tougher, is providing critical analysis – from the point of view of the interested outsider, what input do you have to further refine and improve the business strategy, not just from a technical perspective but also from the corporate officer perspective?

Wylie: The CIO is responsible for three basic areas in terms of the overall strategy of the business. The first is managing the cost, efficiency, and reliability parameters of the “commodity” IT services that we provide. The second is responding to new ideas that the business comes up with and making sure they are in line with some key decision criteria. Often these ideas spring from someone having seen a technology or application somewhere. The role of IT is to say: what business issue is it you’re trying to solve? Get the business to focus on the “what”, and let the IT department figure out the “how”. The third area is bringing emerging technologies or opportunities into the organization, where other people may not have seen those opportunities yet.

Atkins: How can the CIO help the organization’s leader to lead?

Curry: To help the leader lead, you must be available – not only on a personal level but also from a systems and an operational perspective. You have to make sure that the system is available and reliable, because if the leader can’t get hold of you and if he’s not sure about the system, then everything turns to custard. If the leader wants to do work at weird hours then you have to make sure he’s got that capability. It’s also important that there be no surprises for him from IT. He’s got to know that nothing is going to come up and bite him. And you have to give him correct information. The information can’t be partially right; it has to be one hundred percent accurate. We’ve all seen reports that give information which is almost right, and sometimes we can justify it to ourselves. But at the end of the day it’s either right or wrong; there’s no grey in it. We have to make sure that what the leader sees is an accurate portrayal of the way things are.

Atkins: How important is coaching?

Wallace: Coaching is key in the development of staff from a number of different levels. It’s very important on the cultural side of the organization, and it’s particularly useful in helping IT staff learn how to deal with the business users in the organization. What we find quite often is that a lot of coaching is required in extracting requirements from the business and dealing with the business – and dealing with the business in a manner that doesn’t appear to be condescending or judgmental, but at the same time tries to get to the underlying problem.

Lowes: Coaching is among the most misused words that I’ve heard in recent years. A lot of people like being in a position of telling and advising, and they seem to think that that’s coaching. To me, rather than simply telling, coaching is facilitating or enabling a journey of self-discovery or self-realization. The toughest thing in making use of coaching is recognizing that you have to earn the right to do it before you can be effective in using it as a tool. And if you do earn the right and help someone through that thought journey, then you can effectively use straight talk, you can give honest gut reactions, and you can help the person work through the thought process that they need to go through in order to understand what they need to do, which lets them take a higher degree of ownership in the outcome.

French: The coaching philosophy is a very formal structure. It’s not standing on the sidelines like a football coach and going, “Rah! Rah! Rah!” It’s an actual process that takes a number of the traits that you possess inherently as a leader and putting some structure around them. And it really helps to raise the bar in terms of performance. If it’s implemented effectively, you coach both downwards and upwards within the company. So your boss knows you’re doing this to him and he’s familiar with the terms and the structure, and so are your subordinates. I have seen coaching produce tremendous gains in performance within a company.

Atkins: How do you ensure that IM/IT is incorporated in your organization’s thinking?

Adamo: We attack it at three levels: philosophically, through alignment, and through execution. Philosophically, the key for us has been to focus on resolving the objections that the business had in dealing with us. Instead of telling the business ways that they couldn’t do things, we looked to find ways that they could do things – to enable not disable. From an alignment point of view, we have engaged in programs like taking our managers and directors right out into the business to do a stint on the floor, in the business, understanding what’s really going on. That’s served to break down the barrier of us being on some high technology hobbyhorse. At an execution level, we quit trying to worm our way in and we actually earned our way in – we dealt with the execution issues and made ourselves very dependable, even sort of a commodity provider. We eliminated the objections there and started to work our way up the organization to the point where we produced an IT strategy ahead of the business strategy, that served only to inform the business strategy.

Curry: Sitting at the executive table is paramount. We have to be part of the business decisions; if we’re not then we’re at odds or at least disconnect with the business. My mandate is that IT will never be in a position where it can’t perform. By that I mean we want to be two generations ahead of the business in everything we do. So when somebody comes up with a new idea, we’re already there with the technology; if anything we’re actually surpassing it. We also have to get out around our peers in business. We have to get out to our respective industries and become part of that knowledge group so that we siphon that knowledge off. I belong to a lot of the organizations that our industry is involved with, so therefore I’m listening to the industry issues, the industry problems, not only from a government point of view but also from a supplier point of view. That helps me be in tune better with what my peers in the business are going through and it makes it easier for me to understand what they’re going to need next year or the year after.

Long: It’s extremely important that the IT/IM function is seen as bringing value to the corporation. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority is a relatively new corporation and it hasn’t always had the time to mature in a lot of the softer components, so one of the areas that has been useful to me is taking that business skill and knowledge and trying to be a thought leader in terms of how we look at such things as governance, strategic plans, and visions – in other words stretching beyond just the core technology function. To me, it makes you a qualified equal partner at the table because you bring more than a technology bent to that table. In our case we consciously led by writing our own strategic plan and getting it out in front of the board. And that actually caused a lot of thought about what should be in it and why we ventured out to do that, somewhat out of sequence. But it paid back immensely in terms of being considered one of the thought leaders in the organization.

Atkins: Is there ever a time when IT should drive the business, versus the business driving IT?

Lowes: At the Loyalty Group, the Executive Committee has the expectation that this is part of my leadership role. They’re expecting me to participate in tactical ways and in more strategic ways. The bigger opportunity for me is around things like the next generation – the evolution – of our business. We are not here to give away free toaster ovens; we are in the business of business intelligence. The IT industry is at the brink of revolutionary change in that capability, and I need to bring that change to the table. I need to do it in ways that the business wouldn’t think of in order to prevent us, three years from now, from being in reactive mode because everybody else is starting to do this. So regarding business intelligence capability, it’s my job to come to the table and say there are dramatically different next-generation platforms, dramatically different opportunities, and here’s what I’m going to do to let you touch it and feel it. And you can work with me on the trade-offs.

Wallace: There are always going to be situations where IT can drive the business. IT often has the ability – through things like observing how documents are processed, or looking through problem logs, or interacting with users – to identify situations where efficiencies and opportunities exist for automation. Part of IT’s role lies in informing the business that these opportunities exist and being very persuasive in driving these opportunities and accomplishing projects that we feel are beneficial for the business. Business still needs to be the driver, but in cooperation with IT. Part of that is sitting at the table with the other execs and understanding their pressure points. This often leads to solutions and projects that can benefit the business.

Atkins: How valuable is training for CIOs in developing leadership qualities and capabilities?

Wylie: As is the case with so many disciplines, some people have a natural affinity towards leadership and others don’t. But regardless of a person’s natural affinity, I think education has a significant place in helping the CIO become the best leader he or she can be. But education isn’t the only factor. What makes a person good at leadership is a combination of natural ability, education, and experience at doing it. When I took my MBA in the early 1980s, you could get into most MBA schools right after completing your undergraduate degree. But now, more and more, the best MBA schools require that you have at least some work experience so that you have the ability to place the learnings in the context of the real world. I think that this is the right approach, and that it’s applicable to developing strong leadership skills as well.

Atkins: There’s a new generation of workers that value work/life balance above career and long hours. How does this impact on the way that you lead?

French: It’s important as a leader to demonstrate that you have a good balance between your working life and your personal life. I’ve managed to achieve that personally, and I try to instill this value in the folks that I lead. People coming into the IT world have to understand that there will occasionally be long hours, and sometimes the only time you can do the work is on weekends. For the most part techies understand this, so just the fact that you show up and let them know that you do understand that they have to do this is greatly appreciated. It can be something as simple as bringing them coffee and donuts in the middle of the night.

Atkins: How does the CIO insert the technical agenda into the business conversation without ever over- or under-simplifying that agenda?

Adamo: You have to figure out who you need to support the idea you’re putting forward and what’s in it for them. Understanding what’s in it for them is vital. A technique that’s worked well for us is to offer it up as a real life example. For example, take them on a site visit or make them one of the first four or five folks in a pilot (after the technical pilot is done). A couple of years ago we contracted that increasing technical awareness and understanding was a leadership development criterion in everybody else’s objectives, and it was my job to supply that capability. One thing we did was run a series called ‘IT for non-IT executives’, led by an executive coach. A key to the success of this approach was making it really relevant and appropriate to the executive level.

Lowes: Sometimes you introduce a concept and it becomes reality in the mind of those in the business very quickly, and the biggest challenge can be in keeping everyone patient while you get all the work done. Though it risks oversimplifying, I usually try to paint a picture that they can relate to and which helps them understand our progress. For example, I recently needed to do some fundamental business-controls work across all of our database environment. The picture I painted was that of a condo building. We’re going to build the building and we’re going to equip the lobby and we’re going to tackle the units one at a time on a custom-basis, and I gave the reasons why that was the right approach. That gave me a context for helping them understand the plans. For example, today we’re going to talk about the plan for the health club. It also let me give them the ability to visualize specifics without getting into such things as acronyms or database codes. I can also help them visualize the change in terms of the occupancy rate of the building – they understand what occupancy rate we have to get to before we start making a profit on the building.

Atkins: How do you get sufficient one-on-one time with your organization’s leader to learn how best to support that person?

Long: Beyond the scheduled opportunities, there are many different ways to get time with the organization’s leader, but how you do it depends on knowing the person. One of the things that works well is putting that salesman’s hat on and understanding access points and also understanding the personality of the person leading your organization. Know their administrative assistant or whoever is scheduling their calendar – that’s one way in. Don’t overlook more casual opportunities, such as industry events or time spent together in airports and various other places. Look at different ways to get to that person, but make sure that you understand them so that your method of approach will not be offensive.

Atkins: How do you become a trusted advisor and a sounding board for the CEO on both IT and business issues?

Curry: You must be prepared to be the lone wolf. You’ve got to be able to tell the CEO no – small word but it’s not one they hear very often. The CEO has got to understand that you mean it, but you’ve got to have some meat around it; you’ve got to be prepared to go into the discussion of why. On the other side, when the CEO says ‘I need this done’, you’ve got to be able to say ‘yes sir’, and then just go and make it happen. Once you’re able to do both of those things, then the respect and the trust follow along, because he’s seen you deliver under trying circumstances, because it’s usually the stuff that fails that ends up an IT problem.

Wylie: To me this is a two-way street. I think the real question is “how do you and your CEO develop a relationship with each other?”, because frankly, if either one of you isn’t prepared to do that you’re not going to have a relationship in the first place. The CEO/CIO relationship is like a good marriage (except, perhaps, without the love!). You have to approach it as a long-term relationship, with all the things that go with that: with commitment and respect, with preparing to offer trust, and with relying on each other to accomplish certain things. You’ve also got to learn the rules of interacting with the CEO. You have got to know when your CEO expects you to request help, and when you are able to make a decision on your own that he just needs to know about.

Wallace: Part of it is just listening to the CEO and understanding what makes him tick, both in and out of the office. What are his hot points? What is he sensitive to in his work life? He’s got to trust you, and you have to earn that trust through successful delivery of things. You also have to be honest with him and present him with solutions and not just problems. Make sure you have some options for him when there are emerging issues that he has to deal with.

Atkins: What advice would you give CIOs on leadership?

Long: Put people out front; don’t lose sight of the business and its processes; and be good at managing the technologies. I put people at the beginning because without an understanding of your peers, your superiors and the people that work with you – and without an understanding of how to manage those relationships – it’s very difficult to be totally successful. I started my life in manufacturing so I guess I had the importance of processes driven into me. And finally, technology is the enabling component of the other two.

French: You need to stay abreast of technology – it’s absolutely vital. Seek feedback often, from as many people as you can. Learn how to listen effectively. Identify your values; tell people what those values are and then live them, don’t pay lip service to them. If you say that you want to see exceptional customer service from them, you’ve got to be able to provide it yourself, because they will be watching what you’re doing.

Adamo: Leadership is about creating the environment to excel. It’s about balancing your imminent needs and your long-term goals. You cannot rest on excellence in execution – that’s not even a ticket to the game any more, that’s just the expectation. Leadership is founded on trust, it’s about earning respect, and it’s about demonstrating a commitment to the business agenda, over and over again.

Wallace: Empower your staff, trust them and listen to them. There’s so much talent on the team that you have to give all team members the opportunity to be successful, and in turn, make you shine. You also have to be a very active participant in the whole strategic design of the organization at the corporate level.

Lowes: My advice on leadership is to focus on integrity. Whether you’re dealing with your staff or the business or your vendor and partner relationships, what’s critically important, in order to set the foundation for anything else you have to do, is first to demonstrate ownership, second to take the high road, and third put an emphasis, in everything you do, on doing what’s right.

Wylie: Excellence in leadership is founded on excellence in relationships. With respect to your staff and your employee group, your success is driven by their success. You need to give them opportunities to grow; you need to treat them with respect and honesty; and you need to foster open, two-way communications with them. With respect to your peer group, your business clients, and your supervisors and their peer groups, you’ve got to have a relationship with them that allows you to be in the forefront of what they’re thinking, to hear their concerns, and to bring your concerns forward, and to ensure that the IT department is aligned with the goals of the business.

Curry: Leadership is about taking the knowledge of your peers, your boss, and your employees and using that to advance. It’s the sum of the whole, not one part of it that will live out there on its own. So we need to take everybody’s opinions, strain them, take the useful knowledge, and go forward.

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