Monday, February 28, 2011

Do you sleep well ?

It was a gathering of 80 odd international CIOs from the customers of a mid-sized IT company. The keynote speaker’s industry experience was larger than the age of almost all the participants. This giant towered over the CIOs reflecting on his vast experience and how he witnessed the role of the CIO changing with time, accelerating in the last decade. I was enjoying the learning interspersed with anecdotes. One question had everyone nodding and agreeing except a lone figure who disagreed. The question was, “Do you sleep well or are running from one fire to another 24 x 7?”

He did not pass judgment on the crowd magnanimously except as one being busy with no respite. He sympathized with the majority seeking the causes of their misery. The murmur rose to a buzz citing various operational reasons including data inconsistencies, network outages, backup failures, and many more that kept them from the forty winks mandated by the Doctor. The crescendo unanimously in one voice cried the expectation to respond to the next message on their hand-held.

The grand old man trundled down the aisles whispering to some, nodding at others, patting a few, creating a wonderful sense of unity cutting across ages, cultures, geographies, and industries. It was like a universal global malady to which research has failed to find a cure. The binding complete, he turned around to the solitaire CIO, quavering finger pointing at his bewildered face and thundered, “Young man, what do you do differently that puts you above all?”

“I pass it on to others, I delegate!” Nothing dramatic, no magic formula, simple plain old fashioned delegation; the CIO went on to explain how he helps his team run with operations as well as projects. He empowered his team to take decisions, reporting back frequently on progress made, plans for the next fortnight, challenges faced and overcome, escalations that needed attention. He engaged the team in regular meetings to discuss this and new opportunities. The audience resonated, “All this sounds like what all of us do every day!”

The difference is in giving up the control rather than holding on to the umbilical cord. Effective delegation requires the responsibility and accountability to be with the team; they have the freedom to take decisions, make mistakes (hopefully not too many) with the coaching and mentoring of the leader. If they have to seek permission for every step or decision from the CIO, that is not delegation.

Autonomy comes at a price, but also offers reward of time to the leader. S/he can focus on what matters long-term while the tactical is managed by the team. A word of caution though, delegation is not abdication of responsibility, because when things go wrong and there is an adverse impact to the business, the CIO is finally accountable for the actions of the team and the outcomes.

The question to you is “Would you like to join the lone figure in the crowd?”

Monday, February 21, 2011

CIO Resume - Part 2

A few weeks back I had written about my tryst with a CIO struggling to create a resume that would evince interest from headhunters, executive placement, or companies looking for one. After an unsuccessful struggle attempting to advise her to illustrate the business benefits of her interventions, I finally invited her over to collaboratively create a document that may interest someone looking for a CIO.

Together reading through the resume, I noticed she was passionate about her achievements and the impact they created, but had no words in her vocabulary to transform the bullets into business impact. So I decided to indulge in some role play and asked her to be the CEO of a company who wants to hire a CIO and read the document again. Every few minutes I stopped her to observe if it meant anything to the CEO. Her Oh I See moment stretched through until the second reading!

Take an example “16 years of experience in deployment of technology projects“, changing to “16 years of aligning business and IT consistently delivering to promise” or for that matter “Implemented FICO, SD, PP, MM, HR modules ….” which was replaced by “Optimized processes and improved business efficiency by up to 30% …., driven by SAP implementation”. The entire document underwent clinical surgery over two hours with the promise of post operative care to reduce the overall size to fewer than four pages, shedding almost 40% irrelevant content.

Everyone has a story to tell, but the story needs to catch the attention of the reader in the first 200 words or so. The risk of a boring or unintelligible document is real when the supply is higher than the demand. A large volume is less likely to be read compared to a concise one. Cater to the targeted audience and not a generic one. Research the target organization and change accordingly is a great way to at least make it to the shortlist. Talk to common friends or vendors if you are able to.

So is there an ideal format for a CIO resume, structure, content, layout? The answer is no, everyone is unique and has a different story to tell with their background, industries worked for, technologies deployed, and contributions made. Make sure that your headlines attract attention; the text that follows has conviction in what it portrays.

Finally, I think that what really matters is how you have contributed to the enterprise growth or savings, impacted customers (internal or external), what kind of influence you have within the industry you work for, the teams you have managed, the geographies and cultures that you understand, and contributions towards success of your peers. Isn’t this what a CIO or for that matter any CXO anyway expected to do?

Read CIO Resume: Part I

Monday, February 14, 2011

Discussions at CIO Appraisals

A few weeks back, I met a CIO who was feeling elated post his annual appraisal with the local and global bosses. He had reason enough to be proud for the ratings received, expansion of role and monetary benefit (of course). I also had to deal with a CIO who took a long time raving about the injustice meted to him by the organization which does not seem to get IT. Two extremes, and I’m sure that there are many experiences that fall in between.

Every year with certainty like the taxes, every individual dreads, anticipates, is indifferent, or resigns to the annual appraisal. The emotion varies depending on multiple factors, including but not limited, by past experience, organization culture, boss relationship, team, industry, and in many cases individual performance. Appraisals have always been debated on fairness, appraiser bias (positive or negative), as well as the bell curves to which they are expected to fit.

How does the CIO get appraised? What can he do to ensure that the dialogue is fair, the feedback constructive, and reward/recognition aligned to defined metrics and the overall performance of the IT team? Should these aspects be engineered (read as politically managed) to ensure a favorable outcome? Is it that we always expect more than what is due to us?

Any process or relationship between a subordinate and his reporting manager that leaves the discussion to its anniversary is fraught with danger. The discussion will rarely be able to consider contributions through the period, since last few interactions or outcomes will assume top of mind recall. Thus the benefit of the good work done through the year may be tainted by a recent minor incident. We all fall into this trap as appraisers too, and to that extent it is unrealistic to expect a completely unbiased interaction.

Appraisal is a continuous process with reviews, discussions (formal or informal), communication by the appraisee (MS Word does not like this word) and feedback by the appraiser. The formal culmination of this is the period based appraisal—typically bi-annual or annual, occasionally quarterly. One of the key tenets here is communication by the appraisee. Periodic updates and visibility of wins is critical towards building a reputation and mindshare. The CEO has to balance between all the functions similar to the way the CIO manages across differing expertise and IT domains.

Across functions, levels and CXOs, the best stories are always around measurable impact to the business, which can be communicated in unambiguous terms. This is non-debatable, and thereby provides a fact based discussion with the boss, even when he may be IT unfriendly or agnostic. The bell curve will take care of itself—you have that one meeting (similar to your job interview) to convince the appraiser, why you should continue to be where you are, or move up the ladder.

Maybe there is some merit in what Pythagoras said 2500 years back. “Rest satisfied with doing well, and leave others to talk of you as they please”

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.