Monday, August 25, 2014

Recovery from the brink of ignominy

It was the first day at work for the CIO in his new company and he was excited about the prospects; the enterprise was one of the early adopters of technology and the business was growing faster than the market. The CIO having gone through multiple rounds of interviews and battery of psychological tests had made it. The first meeting was with one of the CEOs of a business; he arrived early and waited for the CEO. Arriving on time the CEO shook hands and sat opposite the CIO and opened the meeting with the remark, “I hate IT !

Not knowing how to react, the CIO smiled and commented “Thank you, now that is a starting point”. The meeting went on for the allotted hour after with the CIO emerged with a list of things to fix, projects that the business CEO wanted to execute yesterday, meetings that he had to schedule over the next few weeks with other business leaders and he had yet to meet his team. Wondering about his decision, he walked across to the adjacent building where the next meeting was with his reporting boss and the Managing Director.

As he settled in he discovered the root cause of the bitterness with IT; there were many anecdotes and tales of his predecessor, his interactions with the business, his approach to any new solution and the way he managed the team. He (the predecessor) was the first CIO the company had hired when they needed to leverage the next wave of IT and moving from a local benchmark to being a global benchmark in the industry. Technically competent and extremely articulate, the ex-CIO had everyone eating out of his hands.

No one could have faulted the best of breed technology decisions, validated with more than adequate research from global consultants and industry reports. For his team and the business, he always had answers for any technical problem; his team supported him though they hated his micro-managing style of operation. The resultant rift continued to grow until one fine day the CIO fell into the chasm. Business leaders heaved a sigh of relief and hoped that the new CIO would put in better efforts to understand their viewpoints too.

The newbie met everyone across layers, from shop floor to Boardroom, warehouse to suppliers; he worked with the feet on the ground understanding their pain, met customers gaining insights on drivers of top line. Expectations were set with the teams on key deliverables and measurements with checkpoints on what to report and when. Meeting with key vendors determined traction and connect that he could leverage to move into the next gear. The biggest change was in the attitude of his team and how they approached the business.

Soon he was part of the business teams networking with executive assistants and chiefs with equal ease getting around with a conviction that people accepted at face value. His team liked the empowerment and the freedom; they knew help was at hand whenever they needed it, so was a good word and encouragement. They worked in sync and turned around some of the faltering projects excited by the prospects of growth, visibility and glory; perceptions of IT started its uphill journey towards collective credibility.

The team that was written off by the business shed their reserve coming out into the open with new found confidence built on the foundation of success and the strong shoulders of their leader. They saw a change in behaviour from their customers and reciprocated fuelling the fire of performance taking it to new heights. Internal and external appreciation poured in acknowledging the return to leadership position in an industry. The turnaround was complete, the new CIO had once again been able to bring the function back to relevance.

It was an industry conference on a global stage where the CEO was presenting on the business success and differentiation with help from IT. There was applause in the room after the keynote was delivered; the CEO bowed as his colleague the CIO joined him on stage. As they got off stage they were hounded to discover the secret sauce of the CEO-CIO relationship. The CEO said, “I hated IT a few years back until this guy came on board and changed everything. Today IT contributes to our growth and I love IT”. Both grinned cheerfully and with hands on other’s shoulders walked away.

Footnote: When I wrote about “Living with Bad Hires” many readers wanted to know what happened after the CIO was fired. This is the story of what happened.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Transformation or Business As Usual CIO

This is crazy but I am loving it”, so said a CIO who had taken on the mantle to transform the way his company uses IT. He had been in the role for a while and his company was one of the market leaders in their chosen industry; they needed a strong dose of really good medicine to shape up the information foundation. Business welcomed him with open arms, he showed them what was possible, he brought all of them together to the common cause; the company began the journey with multiple projects starting in parallel.

The roadmap drawn and agreed upon, the company created a healthy pipeline of initiatives that would leapfrog the reputation of the company and the CIO. His team rallied around him as they saw a future with promise of good days to come. They believed in the vision and toiled sweat and tears to shed the inertia that was the hallmark of the company. Projects rolled and went live building credibility and adding fuel to the fire of desire; the going was good and everyone loved the orchestration that created music they had not heard before.

Another CIO on the table retaliated with her wisdom of focusing on one project at a time and doing it very well with no window for error. She was a veteran herself though not the visible types but staying in the shadows of quiet achievement. Her journey was of incremental innovation staying close to business and efficiently focusing on getting it right eventually made her slow and dependable. Growing with time in familiar territory her rise was a story of “I will do what the business wants even if it is irrational and requires maintaining status quo”.

Working with a monopolistic market leader, there was no real pressure for majority of her career, the global enterprise driving strategy and direction while controlling local innovation in areas that mattered. The rest was about creating solutions that worked to digitize existing manual processes. She had toiled diligently and grew through the ranks doing a fair job of maintaining status quo. By virtue of the years in the company her understanding of the business was good and she had built empathy which helped her.

The two were a study in contrast in their approach to partnering with business and how they created value for their respective enterprises. It was a function of market dynamics as well as individual desire and capability to be a transformational leader. One demonstrated passion and a sense of urgency while the other was happy to be an order taker and wait for something to happen. The group of CIOs present took sides with many inclined towards aggression though most professed that a middle path is the best approach to staying relevant to the business.

A few years later many of us happened to meet again; reminiscences of the last discussion offered an opportunity to check how both had done. The transformation aspirant had slowed down a bit though he was still miles ahead of the conventional pace of implementing technology solutions. He had more or less delivered to promise with the organization struggling to keep pace with the fast track path they had chosen. He was satisfied with the change he had architected and the fact that his company was a much sought after customer by many IT companies.

The lady was struggling for survival, her company having been acquired, new set of expectations, new pace of change, new set of deliverables, all of which were alien to her. Her incremental approach was seen an unaligned to new business speed and the urgency to expand market share and dominance leveraging technology. She was unable to step up having lived a life of a passive though reasonably effective partner to the business. Having worked for one company all her life, she was clutching straws to save herself.

Our collective wisdom could only recommend that she seek alternative pastures before she becomes irrelevant to the company. Her shallow experience did not give her too many choices which she realized. Someone suggested to the aggressive CIO that he hire her to run the operations and business as usual which she was good at. Today most CIOs do take on multiple projects which is the need of the hour to stay relevant; it is a rare luxury to not do so and fraught with danger for the long-term. BAU does not require expensive resources.

Where are you in the continuum ?

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.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Living with Bad Hires

When you have been at the helm of IT for global companies and US government agencies the pedigree speaks highly of your reputation as a technologist and getting things done. Been there done that and that too in culturally diverse situations; that kind of reputation is easy to get choice of openings to pick from and that is what he did ! He decided in favor of a mid-sized company already a leader in using technology to help them with his global experience and expertise. He was welcomed with awe and open arms.

His start was what fairy tales are made of; review the landscape, suggest changes, enhance the team with technology skills to deliver the dream of surpassing global industry leaders. Everyone bought into the story and budgets rolled for him to make magic. The company strutted the catch and he reveled in the glory of being the architect of IT led transformational change. Expectation levels were high and discussions around the solutions and technology ended up being displays of professional superiority honed by practice.

He was a role model for workaholics arriving at workplace when most people are getting off their beds and would leave in time to reach home before the date changed. His ability to get into the detail was legendary at times bordering on micro-management. From programmers to network admin, everyone had experienced his need to get involved and he did ask all the right questions. There were stories about his backseat driving with his chauffer including status reports on fuel used and time between air pressure checks.

Business leaders approached hesitantly for help because they had received highly technical discourses on why the chosen solution was best for the enterprise. Not knowing better they nodded and waited for results. The chasm between business and IT began to grow and the murmurs became louder challenging the CIO. He cracked the whip on his team and realized that they were working hard; his agreement to timelines was difficult to honor. When you can’t explain, confuse; and that’s what he did buying some more time.

The team toiled the best they could attempting to balance between their boss’ need to know everything and restrictions on communicating with business users who wanted to know what is happening. The CIOs new hires had no past experience of organization culture, the older ones who knew better were feeling stifled. He continued to revel in technical prowess until whisper of voices became a din too loud for anyone to ignore. Confronted with challenged deliverables, the CIO realized the situation was getting out of hand.

Under severe pressure and resultant stress, few initiatives were completed though by then the business had no faith in the credibility of the global hero. All talk and no substance, no connect with people, limited understanding of industry dynamics and company realities, a substandard team, and finally no leadership were the barbs thrown at the CIO. He had been given a free hand to build a team based on his articulation of requirements. He was responsible for who he hired, he was accountable for what his team delivered.

Retaliating he blamed differences in culture, the immaturity of the company and people to change with evolving technology trends, their unwillingness to adapt to the new world. It was evident that there was no fit by any yardstick almost like putting a square peg in a round hole; the CEO acknowledged the fact and decided to take action and end the misery for everyone. The decision was a relief to everyone and the CIO soon made his exit after almost 4 years of attempting to fit into the role without adapting to the organization.

The sentiment within the enterprise around IT slipped underwater. Good investments suddenly appeared to be white elephants with no future. Old timers stuck their neck out and promised to recoup the losses and put back on track the technology agenda. The problem was not just that the CIO was an alien to the company; the effect of the CIOs bad hires which he refused to acknowledge and the CEO giving him too much rope that killed IT credibility and set back the company on their IT leadership in the market.

If you have a bad hire, correct it immediately before you fall into the crevice of under performance.