Monday, February 07, 2011

Leadership is ...

Across two events over the last few weeks, I came across many CEOs and thought leaders who debated, discussed, and opined on the future state of the economy and what the industry can look forward to. There exists a general sense of optimism and expectation of a brighter tomorrow. A few mentions of the struggles that still remain in pockets, not to forget the lessons learnt in the last couple of years. But the highlight was the speech delivered by a third generation young family owned business entrepreneur.

He was speaking for the first time in public and that too in an event held outside his home country. After a hesitant start he warmed up to the subject which was the journey of the family business as the reigns are eased onto the new generation with the grandfather keeping a dictatorial but benevolent eye on the day to day affairs. Every generation starts from the bottom of the pyramid working their way up until the patriarch decides it’s time to move to the next level. As the story unfolded, the audience listened in rapt attention wondering how each generation has built upon the foundations laid six decades back with humble beginnings, now run by a large joint family of over 150 managing the enterprise successfully.

I could draw parallel to some incidents of the protagonist with our experiences with corporate behavior, complexity of the markets and the organization culture, as it shifted with each new leader entering the business. Swayed by the economic turmoil and political uncertainties, the company was buffeted in the waves up and down as if it had no direction of its own. Reflecting on my own experiences and the various case studies that came my way, life unfolded as if in slow motion reminding the lessons it left behind. The one tenet that was evident through the session was perseverant leadership that kept the family going through rough and smooth. Tough decisions taken resulted in many positive outcomes and a few that made the situation worse. What has all this got to do with the CIO?

To me the CIO leader faces such decision points a lot more frequently irrespective of whether s/he works in one industry/ company or across different ones, big or small, and agnostic of geography and lineage. The CEO is personified in the patriarch, occasionally benevolent when s/he is IT friendly, else indifferent or sometimes hostile. The CXOs pull in different directions like the family members with different priorities. Competition and the overall economy impact everyone and are thus similar in their effect.

Many IT leaders are rightly felicitated for success and contributions to the company; influencing industry trends with early adoption or innovative use of solutions. They take decisions which could potentially wreck a business function or create a setback in the short-term. Risk ability is a critical part of every leader’s armor and CIOs are expected to fail less often as compared to other business leaders.

CIOs who are able to manage across the journey are classified as successful and turnaround specialists while few suffer ignominy of the technology world. Leadership is after all a mindset and not a position. Like the grandfather, many CIOs are now well positioned to mentor fresh talent to take the mantle. But will they? That’s a story for another time.

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