Monday, October 27, 2014

Tale of 3 CIOs, people join companies, people leave their bosses

X had just completed 4 years in his role and grown to take on additional business responsibility. He had built a team which worked across business units and corporate IT on the forefront of some of the new technological innovations. Accolades came from peers and industry acknowledging his ability to take risks and succeed. Life appeared to be going well for him and he was enjoying his professional life. After a few quiet months or was it quarters, he was suddenly looking for a change with agitation that was alien to his happy go lucky nature.

Having spent almost a decade in the company, Y had seen career growth that would be the envy of many; his profile encompassed local and global responsibility. Staying with one industry through his career made him a specialist of sorts and he became a star. His efforts outside of work also made him quite popular in his chosen field. His company had maintained leadership in a competitive industry locally and globally carving a niche with their products. Out of the blue one fine day he called seeking greener pastures.

He was a jolly good fellow and so said all of us ! The life of any gathering, ready with a joke (sometimes too quick), Z had steadily risen through the ranks with some help from his Mentor. Through the 5 years in his company, he had strengthened the foundation and completed seemingly impossibly difficult projects that his predecessors could not. Promoted every alternate year, he had taken new challenges as they came and successfully dealt with them. Over a drink he broke down seeking to leave the company that launched him.

The 3 incidents above spanning 3 different companies and 3 different industries had the 3 CIOs reaching out to me within a span of few months. Maybe it was coincidence, but it was almost as if there was concerted action against my former team mates. All of them had high levels of anxiety and all of them wanted to get out as quickly as possible. Their stories were quite different and then they had many common elements too. They were victims of the same malaise which appeared to be more widespread than reported.

Take the first case, the company management reins passed from founder to the next generation. X found joy working with him as his new manager with an Ivy League pedigree used technology as a native. He drove the company fast and furious, recklessly at times as seen by the old school, he wanted to get somewhere in a hurry. X attempted to run with him and soon found himself at the receiving end frequently irrespective of root cause. He soon realized his non Ivy League or named Institute stature made him an outcast in the inner circle.

Y had done well through the years growing from mid-level to heading the function eventually. His sharp and quick eye for detail made him a popular choice to be included in any team struggling with a tricky problem. The company saw CEOs change thrice over his tenure; all of them nudged him to greater heights. Law of averages caught up with him; the latest CEO hired across layers from his previous company sidelining most old-timers. Y used the last resort calling global compliance which saved his position but killed his career.

Z had a new manager who was task oriented; the resultant change in workload gave Z a high. He rose to every occasion and delivered to promise. Some of the initiatives were industry firsts giving the company a competitive talking point. He was outspoken which was not a negative, his quick wit and mannerism portrayed him of lesser maturity. His work was commended but his manager thought he needed to grow up. Thus despite the success a search for a senior leader above him was launched forcing him to introspect and seek options outside.

Success is no longer a guarantee for continuity; political hues and cronyism seem to be the new mantras required in large doses. Managers are looking for comfort within their teams in new environments thereby throwing enterprise culture and values out of the window. In the quest to succeed, tolerance to such behavior is accepted as part of the game. Collateral damage with some exits does not appear to perturb owners and Boards. By the time the realization hits the company, the damage is already done which takes a long time to recover.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lunch-time networking causes indigestion

The new email is a retrograde step and not an upgrade; life was so good with the older system. What is happening with our IT ? The world is moving ahead and we are going backwards. How do you expect us to be effective when we cannot even communicate with our customers ? I don’t know what to do, probably this year again thanks to IT we will have some unhappy customers !

I had approved the investment almost 2 months back and you are telling me that we still have not placed orders ? How do you expect us to work ? What is the problem ? As the Business Head when I have given the go ahead who can challenge the decision ? Why are you trying to save a few thousand dollars ? Do you know that the loss to business due to this delay is in hundreds of thousands ?

These are a sampling of lunch time ranting as described by CIO friends. One of them was a good guy, dedicated, focused, always ready to please; his team imbibed the same ethos and worked hard, always available to the business. He was successful in a typical way with conscious budgets and a fair set of initiatives that kept the engine humming. Inorganic growth and lateral expansion caught him capacity constrained which was beginning to hurt. He did not like the lunch time discussions anymore which ended up embarrassing him most of the time.

A long time back one of my managers gave me an interesting insight; we all typically have our office lunch with our teams. If you look around in the lunch room you will see a finance table, legal table, an IT group, and so on. These groups get together automatically and enjoy shop talk and extended work discussions over the rice, curry and bread. In open organizations there is a reserved table for the Managers where you will find the CXOs quietly having a meal with small talk. Most employees stay away from this table and likewise the CXOs.

My manager who became and stayed a friend believed that the world should not be polarized this way. He too ate at the staff canteen whatever food was served and consciously sought new groups every day to share a meal with. Likewise he expected all of us at C-level to break our comfort zones and network with staff across levels and functions. The discussions though initially polite became a tool to measure the pulse of the company. Employees warmed up to the idea and based on their ease opened up with some of us.

Observing this through the years I realized that the behavior is universal; birds of feather flock together. People gravitate into groups with familiar faces and shun the relatively unknown; if they find no seat within their groups they rather sit alone and not with another group; they did what they did, it was automatic. I saw similar behavior in social gatherings, networking dinners and wherever people got together. Off course there are exceptions who love to meet new people and merge into any group easily.

Practicing what I learned whenever possible, the initially forced experience soon made me welcome into any group. No walls went up or conversations died when I joined a group for lunch. The connect with people created empathy that I could use in various discussions around problems and opportunities as well as driving change which came along with the interventions IT created. We connected beyond work related transactions and built many friends who light up when we meet even in a casual encounter on the streets or a mall.

One of the answers would be that it is all about anticipating requirements, partnering the business and being proactive in your discussions. If you are a good CIO who is aligned to the business, and connected to the customer, blah, blah … lunches can be fun. Your customers’ perceptions are your reality; any change takes a lot of effort and consistency. Another view is that some people will never be satisfied whatever you do; so don’t get impacted by all these ramblings, manage them separately and keep going. Go and sit on another table rather than get indigestion.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Corporate ADHD and Time Management

Once upon a time there was a disruptive technology that took the corporate world by storm. Every executive aspired to own it and badgered their respective managers and IT to provide it across the ranks. The investment was quite high and thus it was rationed off down the hierarchy incrementally. The haves strutted it proudly and for the wannabes it was a classic case of owners envy, neighbors pride. It took a while to become a commodity and then the paradigm changed again. I am referring to mail on the mobile that every executive wanted.

It was fashionable to have a message footer which indicated which device you used to send a message especially if it was not a PC or laptop. Notifications and alerts from these devices ensured that you knew 24X7 whenever a message arrived. Initially due to enthusiasm and then by habit replies were almost instant. Whether in meeting, at a social event, getting the nightly beauty sleep, or traveling including driving; there was an intrinsic urge to respond. The resultant impact to mind and body created rifts in relations, disease forms and cures.

Multitude of newer devices and smartphones eliminated the divide between the privileged and the bourgeois. Consumerization of IT created newer possibilities which the CIOs struggled with; added to this social media addiction completed the digitization of the populace. Armed with multiple devices to separate personal from corporate, the demands on the individual from peers, friends, acquaintances, and the illuminati made everyone a slave in the connected world with pings and vibrations of all kinds vying for attention.

We want to achieve more in lesser time and thus multi-task in a hope that within the same time more will get done. Thus people flit from moment to moment with their attention darting from one thought to another; the flurry of activity divided between competing tasks and priorities. Interruptions now enter less in physical form and more on multiple connected devices attached or surrounding us. The result is that everything ends up taking longer and little gets done which pushes us to do more of the same entrenching us deeper into the quicksand of inefficiency.

Empirical data from numerous studies has proven that attention span stands reduced by 3X over the last few decades and continues its downward spiral. We don’t have time is the pet peeve of busy corporate executives buried under the mountain of unfulfilled tasks and missed deadlines. Numerous apps, email alerts, and push notifications keep us bound to the devices and habitually pressurizes us to take notice and demands action. Unable to comprehend the nemesis they struggle to stay afloat with no evident way out.

Everyone is working harder in their quest to get much done; longer hours has become the norm. Work life balance anyone ? Shun the thought and take some work home; get it done while you travel and the rest when you get there. There are no options for the individual; enterprises now have choices from the downsized, unwanted and freelancers; there is always someone who will do it cheaper, faster, probably in the neighborhood or oceans apart. Technology also makes it possible to automate many processes and eliminate the inefficient.

Effectiveness of meetings dwindle and urgency overrides the important with perceived time value of information becoming a key measure even when it influences no change in outcomes. Time is getting filled with activity leaving no discretionary activity possible. People attending “Time Management” seminars find that it sets them back with the time spent. The urgent has overtaken our lives and the important is neglected.

A generation of digital slaves emerges from the shadows; they walk with bowed heads with their hands at diaphragm level holding their (master) devices, attentive eyes glued to glowing screens beckoning them to the inane and unimportant. Some devices strapped to different body parts communicate with other things which in turn influences the slave’s behavior. The promise of a better future keeps the addicts hopeful and asking for more. It is scary that we are beginning to forget what life used to be and what it can be.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Chief Interrupted Officer

Times are getting better for most CIOs with economy looking up, growth back on the agenda, business wanting to create a digital enterprise, the hype around various technologies like Cloud, Social Media and what have you dying away. CMOs and CIOs have figured out a way to work together while CFOs have set the governance on budget management and are not obsessed with Return on Investment as the only measure. IT budgets are beginning to show signs of revival and so are expectations on the new projects and possibilities.

Some mature companies used the lean period to reinvent themselves and reengineer processes; they invested in refresh of not just the servers and other hardware which could be had for a steal with piled up inventories with vendors, they also used the spare capacity with people to upgrade their ERPs and build new systems. Many CIOs were busier in the last few years than they had been when business was booming. They also started seeing attrition in the team with the job market opening up which added to the challenge.

Good times bring a lot of events, seminars, offsite meetings, and invitations to all kinds of gatherings which have great headlines to attract all and sundry. One of the CIOs whose spouse was traveling mentioned that she hadn’t cooked for a week by just accepting these. Except that they rarely offer any major learning or insight; after a while even the networking turns stale with the same people ending up in every event. It is another matter that the structure of events has remained the same over the years defying logic and evolution.

I was thus surprised to hear about a CIO who never attended any events or seminars or exotic trips that are organized by the friendly vendors. No one had ever seen her in any of the events despite the long years she had put in into the industry. She never responded to any phone calls, messages or emails or any attempts to reach her. It did not matter who was inviting her, Chairman, CEO, Account Manager, she remained a hermit. Her reclusive ways created many stories and not all of them were flattering or positive.

Her team did not know how to react to such a situation; they wanted to network and socialize and get exposure to what was happening in the world outside. They were reluctant to ask as they never saw their Boss ever accept any or go to such gatherings; her demeanor did not invite anyone to venture to ask. New team members who came from different environments found this quite unusual. A few who were bold enough to participate on their own enjoyed the benefits; their rationale, it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

So when I met with one of her brave team members I thought I would attempt to unravel the mystery. I was perplexed by what I heard. Her calendar was double booked many times with internal meetings; she was always flitting between meetings without spending enough time to get to the bottom of the issue or to understand the impact or action items. She almost always turned up late for the appointment and would be out of the room no sooner the meeting started with a phone call interrupting her transient presence within the first five minutes.

She spent a lot of time on the phone, but then she never took calls from the vendors and most people internally found her phone busy. Few who had spent long years with her knew it was not her partner. The interruptions had become part of her persona that people no longer saw that as abnormal behavior. Within her company they had gotten used to meetings without her even when she accepted them. Someone dared ask her about the calls; if looks could kill, the poor inquisitive lady would have died on the spot.

Everyone speculated about her leadership, effectiveness, longevity and survival; difficult to comprehend unless your family owns the business or there was a relationship of another kind (neither was the case). Her team was at the receiving end of rebukes while she remained immune to the environment. Her team was adequately effective and the business had limited expectations from her. Working at her lowest level of inefficiency she had rarely been challenged for innovation or transformational leadership.

I wonder what would happen to her should she join another company ?