Monday, March 12, 2012

The Story Teller CIO

Last week I was at a CIO conference with 80 odd CIOs representing junior and senior CIOs across verticals. Amongst other sessions, fun and networking, some vendor sales pitches, the big draw was a small contest run by the organizers titled “My success story”. It was more than elevator pitch but less than a full presentation with each CIO allotted six minutes to talk about their learning on value creation, innovation, strategy, transformation, BITA, leadership lessons or anything else.

The breadth of options provided enough latitude to the participants to choose anything they would like to talk about, the idea being that success has no one formula but everyone achieves success in their own way. The participants had to send in their briefs in advance with a panel shortlisting six CIOs. Given the average work experience being over 20 years, the audience anticipation level was quite high. Selection of winners was based on an audience vote.

The second (I will come back to the first) one got off the ground talking about leadership and teamwork stressing on the qualities the CIO needs to imbibe. He acknowledged team contribution but stressed that the CIO makes the difference. The key message a good team with a bad leader will fail where a bad team with a good leader has a better chance of success. Ahem. A credible start with a weak finish sans examples did not get him many votes.

The next set of CIOs took a different approach. They struggled to create the magic moment and talk about their winning formula; everyone knew that all the speakers had achieved reasonable success in their long and illustrious careers. So where was the disconnect ? These CIO leaders presented specific project success stories, a point technology solution in the recent or distant past that they were proud of.

Few were almost like a vendor sponsored case studies. Slide after slide talked about technology and benefits accrued from the projects. Can the implementation of unified communication or video surveillance or for that matter business process management even if they contributed to savings or productivity enhancements, be classified as great success ? The stories faltered to bring out leadership aspects of the individuals and portrayed them as good IT CIOs falling short of the benchmark business CIO. They failed to capitalize the opportunity.

So let me come back to the first speaker with no slides or presentation; the CIO spoke with a conviction that had the audience in attention. He spoke about a journey through the years graduating from IT Manager a long time back to the title of the CIO. He discussed many milestones crafted with the help of the teams, not just IT teams, but business and vendors too. He provoked the audience with questions. The extract below based on my notes from his speech is given below.

Over the years I decided to let go, the team was given responsibilities that helped them grow; in their initial years they needed handholding, or feedback, or just a bouncing board to help them understand how they are doing. Not all initiatives succeeded, the team took the learning and shared across to fail faster. This approach has seeded many leaders who are today successful CIOs in many companies across the globe. I can count more than a dozen such team mates who worked with me who have been able to also pass this learning within their own teams thereby multiplying the talent pool.

Success is always a result of teamwork; the leader needs to give the team freedom to take decisions. When they succeed credit goes to them, when they do not, the leader takes the responsibility for lack of success. Such teams rarely need to be reminded of what matters, they rarely let the leader down. My legacy today lives with most of such team members who are shining bright.

No guesses for who won the contest. Maybe everyone is doing this; however, we need to be better story tellers.


  1. Anonymous10:40 AM

    This is a very ideal story of promoting the ranks to nurture their dreams. We have to give way to the juniors and also hold them so they they stand firm. The element of trust and freedom are two important pillars of this impressive success story.

  2. Anonymous7:47 AM

    Thanks for sharing this. I read it several days ago and have been thinking about it since. We tend to rush into proving our point and flashing lots of PowerPoint. Instead, telling a story and trying to connect with your listeners might be much more effective.

    1. Thanks Mark, the power of a message is visible when there is a connect with the audience. Last year I had tried to give the same message to all the big IT vendors as well as a few other presenters. In this conference, the most powerful speaker was once again who had a story to tell. At that time I did not reach the same conclusions a la "story telling" which I did this time.

  3. Hi Arun,
    Running through your message. Amazing thoughts.

    Two messages are evident here:

    a. Leaders need to have that vision, where they know when to do
    the handhold or become the bouncing board for their team.

    b. Be available around for team members, when they are down and give them the necessary space to decide on things.

    Not forgetting, they need to be good presenters. You are already one.

  4. Great point Arun and an important message in all walks of life. Your message about telling a story is to really engage and connect with the other side. At work, with friends or in the family, engaging and connecting with others is key. One thing I have done and now recommend to others is to join Toastmasters to help improve communication skills. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. Being around a few Toastmasters in the past has given me some benefit. CIOs have a lot of stories, I hope they start sharing them.