Humza photo 2 April 2007

What does it take to be more successful as a leader as an emerging CIO?

HM: I believe there are two dimensions to it. First, there is leading the IT function to achieve its technical and business goals and, second, there’s inspiring and leading people per se. You don’t necessarily need to have deep technical or business knowledge to be able to do the inspirational part, but you need to have a good insight into key technical and business issues if the inspirational bit is not to come over as shallow.
Thinking about the technical and business dimension first, I think it’s crucial to understand, at an enterprise level, not only where your organisation is heading but also where it ought to be heading – that is, not just the organisation’s own strategy, but also tested and refined against an independent external perspective.

So who would and wouldn’t you listen to in that environment?

HM: You have to be able to listen to virtually anybody. Obviously, listening to the Board and key business executives is critical. However, even amongst those people, perspectives will vary considerably. Additionally, people lower down the organisation can have valuable insights into, say, competitive blind spots, operational weaknesses, and so on. Finally, external advisers can give you excellent market overviews and technical updates, and will usually challenge your own thinking.
Before you delve one or two layers down into wherever you happen to be operating at a particular point in time, I think you need to have a clear sense of what the organisation’s ‘conventional wisdom’ is, where you agree with it and where you don’t, and you need to be prepared to be counted in terms of your opinion – but be able to do it in such a way that it is recognised that it is for the best interest of the organisation.

So, away from IT, we’re just talking about business strategy?

HM: I’m saying that you need to be sufficiently curious to know the industry and the business in which you operate and understand not only what your current business strategy is and where it’s positioning itself but have an understanding of where you agree and disagree with it so that you have an opinion and a perspective. And you must create opportunities to voice those opinions. A good analogy is a political General Election. Just as in an election, if you want to be appointed to lead an organisation, the appointers will expect you to clearly state beforehand what you will do with that organisation.

So, don’t just accept the business strategy but work out how IT’s going to contribute to it?

HM: A CIO should be part of the top team, working with CEO, the CFO and the heads of business, influencing the shape and direction of the business, and not just provide the organisation with an operational service.

Collaboration between IT and the business at all levels in the organisation is critical for success. Working closely with the business is essential if you are to deliver real business value as CIO.

That’s great advice but it’s also dangerous.

HM: In a typical ‘IT-enabled’ organisation, it can be more dangerous not to have IT engaged at the top table.

But leadership is always risky. For me, leadership is about a journey. In today’s rapidly changing business environment, that journey will inevitably have significant unknown. You may not understand all elements of that journey and some pieces may be missing. You will get things wrong, some things fail, to be able to learn from these and move forward successfully, securing broad organisational support is essential.

When you want to influence the shape and direction of the business, how do you get that understanding before you move into a role?

HM: Focused hard work. It is important to know what is expected of you by your boss and other key stakeholders. I recall being was asked to take on the CIO role for a while. My initial focus (for six month or so) would be on setting the IT agenda but there after I was keen to contribute to the business more broadly. That is because it is to absolutely critical get on top of what the challenges within the function, in terms of service delivery, in terms of technology delivery, in terms of getting the core technology areas done.

Six months sounds pretty ambitious in terms of sorting it all out?

HM: Of course no IT function can be transformed in six months. However, by that time, you need to have a clear plan drawn up, agreed with your stakeholders, and the first few steps successfully taken. The function should also have some early wins under its belt. You also need to establish good relationships with users in the business and partnerships with your key suppliers.

There are waves of things that need to happen in months, there’s a wave of things you might expect to happen in 12 to 18 months and then there are those things that take three to five years.

The tenure of most CIOs is, what, three or four years? If it taken a year or more to figure out what needs to be done, then you’re not leaving much time to actually achieve anything.

Do you think leadership in the CIO environment is different to any other C level leadership role?

HM: Absolutely not. In addition to ability, it’s about appetite and desire. Michael Heseltine put it very well when he said one of the most important things about leadership is, really wanting it; not everyone aspires to these challenges.

And by that you mean wanting to be a leader?

HM: It’s relentless hard work and requires a very wide range of personal qualities. I don’t know anybody who has all the qualities that are needed. We all come with certain skills and attributes, but also with big gaps. You’ve got to want to be a leader sufficiently to sharpen the strengths and the skills that you do have, and find ways of working with people at different levels to compensate for each others weaknesses.

And the second?

HM: The second dimension of leadership is how to lead people. The vast majority of us are, by definition, ordinary or normal; so if we are waiting for the superhuman it may not happen. We are more likely to inspire change if people are involved and have a clear understanding why change is needed. If that is clear people are more likely to embrace and implement that change.

People like their leaders to be visible, they like them to engage. And when they do engage with their leaders, people like to be recognised in terms of what has been achieved. Too often, the message from ‘on high’ is that we need to change, we need to be better, etc. If you never recognise how much people have already achieved they become punch drunk.

If you make the effort to recognise people’s past contributions, then you are well on the way to motivating them to make further, bigger contributions in the future. After all, it’s the people who deliver it in the end.