Monday, August 03, 2009

Strategic or Operational CIO ! Making choices

Not so long ago on a Saturday, I was invited to a day long meeting of a few selected high profile CIOs. As the meeting started, one of them was in and out of the room for about 30 minutes. With every journey in and out, his pressure level appeared to be going up a few notches. Until he decided that he had to be managing the crisis that hit his IT service and left the meeting quickly with a promise to return as soon as the crisis has been overcome. His company had one of the oldest running relationships with the outsourced service provider and the subject of a few case studies too. And that was the last we saw of him for the day !

The remaining CIOs looked at each other in amazement and wondered what happened to the good old adage of delegation and empowerment of teams. One also commented that he never believed the impacted person to be "Operational CIO" and everyone nodded their heads in unison. This makes one wonder the "Strategic CIO" tag that almost every CIO wants to attach against their names is reality or just an aspiration ?

A few hours into the meeting, another phone ran amongst the remaining CIOs and after a few minutes on the phone during which everyone was on pause, the CIO in question mentioned, that he had a situation which his team called to apprise him of and he was confident that they would overcome it. The meeting continued with his equal participation.

Two sides of the CIO within a span of a couple of hours. Is this personality driven or Organization dependent ?

I believe that both play a role in the making the CIO either Operational or Strategic. The CIO has to build a team that s/he can empower and is willing to trust to take the best and the most pragmatic approach in the case of a crisis. The Organization has to experience the ability of the IT team to manage adversity with or without the leader's direct presence. The CIO has to let go and manage expectations with the rest of the Organization. In most cases the team will live up to the confidence placed on them. If the general belief is that the team will not overcome, then they will wait for the CIO to take the decision; on the contrary, if the team is empowered, they will in almost all cases rise to the situation.

If the Organization has a cultural issue with every senior manager calling the CIO for even a small issue, then the sad reality is that the CIO will be seriously challenged to demonstrate strategic intent as the operational burden will ensure that there is no time to even think about anything remotely strategic. Such an enterprise becomes the death knell of a strategic CIO leader.

The insecure CIO tends to become operational and the spiral downwards happens too quickly thereafter. Overcoming the subsequent burden can sometimes take a lifetime (at least within that company for the CIO). One could also argue to say that the General elected to fight with the soldiers from the trenches. But what good is a dead General to the forces ?

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