Monday, August 11, 2014

Stand up and open your mouth

One quote from a CEO has remained stuck in my head for a long time; not that the chat happened long ago, but it seems like ages to me. The CEO was from a large and successful company which was doing well; the company had grown to a size where it merited hiring a CIO and that is what they had done. The newbie CIO had worked in a small company as an IT Head and believed he was ready to get into a larger role. The CEO quipped that the CIO had been around for a few years, was part of management from day one and expected to contribute to business.

The CIO had grown up the hard way with hard work and determination applying his technical expertise and growing through the ranks. Under the guidance of his mentor and boss – the CIO – he had learned the ropes and contributed to the projects he was part of and led with equal enthusiasm. He had the feeling that he was ready for an independent role and decided to take the plunge when opportunity knocked. The industry was familiar; one of the lines of business in his earlier company he had supported.

He got off to a heady start, a cabin, the perks of being in the management team, the seat on the table where company strategy and financials were discussed with everyone free to contribute rather than being asked for an opinion. He was overawed by the friendly bantering and fierce stand-offs to defend a viewpoint within the CXOs to whom he was now a peer. The initial period was spent understanding the business and the culture; he politely asked questions to his neighbors to clarify a doubt or understand a point better.

He spent time in various departments and talking to senior managers getting a deep understanding of the business. In functional meetings he demonstrated his sharp mind and the ability to connect to the problem to arrive at a solution. He gained confidence of the operational team who were happy with the progress. Slowly news trickled upwards to the business heads who appreciated the IT led initiatives. Some of these made way into the updates during the monthly meetings which were duly acknowledged by the group.

As time passed away the CIO grew confidence in his and his teams’ abilities to influence and contribute to outcomes. He was more alert in the monthly meetings and listened intently; at times he had a point to make but hesitated in his awkwardness of perceptions. At times he did blurt out only to retreat in the face of cross questioning. His peers attempted to break this nervous behaviour by pushing the CIO to shed his inhibitions and speak up. His naturally introvert demeanour in most cases overpowered his courage to participate.

Discussing his CIO, the CEO was comparing the debate on the floor with a few of us to happenings in his conference room. The management team was relatively small which you could count on your hands. Most had been around for a much longer time and there was a circle which the CIO had not breached into. He berated the fact that his CIO was tongue tied in almost every meeting; the CEO comically said “In staff meetings my CIO only opens his mouth to put in a cookie! I have forgotten what he sounds like”

I wondered about the words through the years as they remained stuck to my mind and would not let go. Meeting the CIO in a forum I inquired about his progress; he lit up while talking about the various projects he had initiated and the benefits thereof. Obliquely I also asked him about the culture, team and peers; the light on his face dimmed and darkened as he spoke about the management meetings where he was unable to speak out. Whenever he had an idea someone would speak it before him leaving him stranded.

He had attempted to change but was finding it difficult to break the perception that had become his reality. I did not have too many words of advice for him and pressed him to open up and start speaking rather than waiting for his turn. For him to be perceived as a business leader he had to create allies with his peer group who would build credibility for him. I believe that CIOs will have to step out even if it is disruptive to their personalities and actively participate in discussions giving their viewpoints while staying relevant.

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