Staying the Course as CIO

Do you want to be a great IT leader? Why not? For those in corporate or public sector life, becoming a Chief Information Officer, a Senior Vice President or perhaps even a Chief Digital Officer in a large organisation is seen by many — quite rightly — to be the very pinnacle of achievement in the world of Information Technology.

Today, an increasing number of IT leaders have become Board or Executive Team members in their companies. Almost all exert high levels of power and influence. However, the life expectancy of this corporate rainmaker is shockingly short. IT leaders often seem to enjoy a span no longer than a mayfly as they flutter away in the turbulent waters of the corporate pond. Few seem to stay the course for much longer than a couple of years and it is rare to find anyone making it to half of a decade or more. Some organisations even change their CIO every year. And most of the endings are not happy ones either. Very often something, or more commonly a whole bunch of somethings, goes horribly wrong and the reign of the noble IT leader comes to an abrupt and brutal end. In some cases the disaster takes the form of a slow?motion train wreck. With growing inevitability, it can be months before the inadvertent act of hara?kiri is finally completed and the inevitable mushroom cloud of dust and the smell of doom imperiously rise from the tangled mass of mangled locomotives, twisted rails and spilt cargo.

More often however, the end is quicker and much more sinister. Whispered rumours around the water?cooler are shortly followed by a curiously empty executive office and a bland corporate announcement referencing "Special Projects" or some similar metaphor. It's all very sad. After all, the incumbent had probably spent twenty years or more of their life assiduously building their career and preparing for this great opportunity.

Who would have thought it would end with little more than a cardboard box full of belongings, a tearful goodbye from their executive assistant and a lonely trip down the service elevator?

The displaced IT leader will be wondering what happened and what, if anything, they could have or should have done. They will also believe that life in the IT industry is unfair, which of course is also true. What this IT leader and many more before them may not have fully appreciated is that the IT industry is riddled with a bewildering arrangement of trials and challenges. Each of these horrors has been carefully designed by Mother Nature to cause you the maximum amount of pain, suffering and even career death. There are however, a few, sparse straws of hope on to which you can clutch. As you contemplate the vistas of vicissitude ahead of you, be aware that others have gone before and some have even stayed the course.

The very few wise, battle?scarred warriors who have lived to tell their tale know that these same horrors appear again and again with relentless regularity. It doesn't matter which business or public sector organisation you work in. It doesn't even matter whether you are trying to run a relatively small IT function on a single site or a complex enterprise scattered across far distant geographies. Suffering is pandemic at least as far as leadership in IT is concerned.

In my new book, I examine some of the worst trials and challenges you might well run into on your quest to be a world-class IT leader. Some you may be able to side?step and we will look at various methods of fancy footwork you might employ. But unfortunately many will already have a firm missile lock and you will have to endure some pain as well as dealing with the aftermath. Only the most careful attention before, during and after the event will give you any chance of staving off disaster. A strong constitution is also required. I was once given an indispensable piece of advice by a wonderful aviator who taught me how to fly (few are immune from their mid?life crisis). "What should I do if things go wrong up there?" I asked. She broke into a broad smile, laughed and said. "Panic slowly of course".

This is an edited extract from Staying the Course as a CIO: How to overcome the trials and challenges of IT leadership, by Jonathan M. Mitchell