Sharpening the CIO saw

You are a smart person. You wouldn’t have gotten to where you are without being smart. But I have news for you.

Your brilliance gets dull with use. Just like a knife. Or better yet a saw.

I grew up in a part of the world where a good number of people earned their livelihood by harvesting the trees that became paper (our field trips weren’t to the museum, but to the pulp and paper mill). And there was something one learned quickly. You couldn’t fire up your chainsaw in the morning and cut all day without the saw losing its ‘edge’, becoming dull, and making it more work to use. Workers who took the time to ‘sharpen their saw’ could actually cut more wood than those who don’t.

I’m not the first to use this metaphor. The late Stephen Covey described it as:

“Sharpen the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have – you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

For those of us in IT leadership, let me add a fifth – Leading IT.

As an IT leader, there are a lot of things that will dull your saw. But let’s talk about 5 ways you can keep your CIO saw sharp.

  1. Read – Expand your knowledge and be informed.

Today’s CIO needs to know more than feeds and speeds. You need to know the issues faced by your industry, your market, and your organization in order to find innovative solutions through technology.

You need to understand the trends that impact you, so you can be ready for the disruptive technologies coming down the pipe (BTW – if your project list still has “Transition from XP and Office 2003” on it, I may be too late to help you).

Long ago, I gave up my ability to be informed about popular culture and took the time to start reading about the culture of change – and not just on the Internet. I suggest books, real books. Check out titles from Geoffrey Moore, Patrick Lencioni, and Jim Collins.

Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.

  1. Put yourself in the position of a learner.

You are smart, but you can’t know everything. Your job needs skills and expertise that wasn’t required when you first became a CIO.

Are you gaining new skills? Do you have a mentor, or someone you respect and connect with regularly to review how things are going, even at the risk of them disagreeing with you? Do you take time to listen to people with opposing viewpoints? Will your hard and fast principles stand up to scrutiny?

We all know CIOs that were locked in their opinions (platform choice / core services / etc.) that SHOULD have changed but didn’t. Don’t let that be you.

  1. Network – (The relational kind)

Get out of your office. There are so many reasons for doing so.

Inside your organization, connect with your staff in ‘their’ space. Get to know what keeps your president and CFO up at night.

Outside your organization, get to know others in your field who are pushing boundaries. Pick great events to meet your peers. Look at local CIO organizations. The IT leaders that are making a difference are out there, and in most cases quite willing to share their scars, callouses and successes.

  1. Buy new batteries for your Male Bovine Fecal Matter Detector

Don’t be caught up in the latest marketing hype (cough, “Cloud”, cough, “Big Data”, cough “BYOD”, cough) and learn to discern what the real issues are behind these trends. You need to be able to articulate how they impact or differentiate your organization and better yet, how they are going to help your organization succeed.

That doesn’t mean that vendors don’t know what they are doing. You need to develop strong partnerships with these folks. Just don’t rely on them to fully define how their product or service will address your needs.

  1. Develop your team

This does a number of things. Most importantly, THIS is where you will find the time to do all of the other things in this post.

It’s time to delegate. You are no longer are the bottom of the organizational chart. You have people to delegate things to. If you’ve done your job well, you’ve hired bright, brilliant people who are more qualified than you in their areas of expertise, and you can trust them (if you as a CIO aren’t involved in designing the skills and talent mix of your team, then you have much bigger challenges in this area).

I’m not a dancer.My movement to music looks like a cross between electrocution and a heart attack. In spite of that, let me use a dancing metaphor: You need to salsa with the strategic and quit the tango with the tactical.

Quit immersing yourself in the minutia, which is why you have directors and managers. You add the most value to your organization when you are working at a higher level and your team has the freedom to do their jobs without overbearing oversight.   That doesn’t mean you aren’t in control, but that you have planned your team well.

What would you add to the list? What do you do to keep your saw sharp?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Kevin Pashuk
Kevin Pashuk
Kevin Pashuk blogs regularly about his life as a Chief Information Officer in the educational sector. His writings cover educational technology, IT leadership, and whatever else might be on his mind. Some people even agree with him.

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