Working to Expectations: The Toughest CIO Challenge

Courtesy of Optimize There are two dimensions to CIO professional effectiveness. One relates to the clear ability to deliver high-quality, cost-effective technology results that serve the needs of the organization. It's what CIOs do daily without even thinking about it. The other relates to the perception that IT is managed well and is delivering value. These two dimensions can be so distinct, it's hard to discuss them at the same time. But both are important to your performance evaluation, reputation, and success. Many CIOs and senior IT managers can deliver great technical solutions and services, yet have little influence—or even lose their job—because the perceptions of top executives simply don't match reality. Or maybe the perceptions are all that matter, and they become reality. Regarding the first dimension, the effective CIO must deliver top-notch results—there's no real option. As in any sport, you have to win to keep playing. Smooth talk, good relationships, and PowerPoint presentations can't mask poor results. If your communication costs are higher than they need to be, ultimately a vendor will help your boss understand this, and the assessment of your performance will suffer. If your projects are consistently over budget, your lack of fiscal management expertise will become apparent. If you're out of touch with your organization's strategic direction and key initiatives, your peers will begin finding alternate sources for IT solutions, such as application service providers and vendors you don't know about. Similarly, if you don't motivate and engage your staff, some of your key people will leave, creating a noticeable hole in your organization. And if your failure to provide a great work environment is to blame for their departure, that fact will be made apparent to the HR director through exit interviews. Delivering actual results requires the ability to understand technology, technology professionals, and your business. Tried-and-true practices—IT-business alignment, vendor management, innovative use of new technologies, talent selection and motivation, and fiscal management—all matter significantly in the success formula for a CIO. So does speaking the same language as your business partners. But it's the second dimension that's most neglected and most difficult to get your arms around. As we know, expectations are in the eye of the beholder, and it's the expectations of our senior management that form much of the basis of our assessment. The results of this largely informal assessment often define the resources with which we have to work. The CEO or board's visceral reaction to the CIO's proposed budget has more influence over its approval than you might think. Our successful or failed understanding of this often unspoken set of expectations is fundamentally important in the pursuit of effectiveness. We must be perceived as doing the right work the right way. How is this defined? Earning the respect of higher-ups is critical, but you also need to win over your direct reports and business peers. You must focus time and attention on activities that create the proper impression your highly effective department deserves. All the balanced scorecards in the world won't counteract negative "shots over the bow" at the boardroom table. You may deliver a wonderful presentation to your executive team about the lower communications costs you just achieved, but if the chatter in your absence is about the continuing delay in a new system rollout, no one is really listening to you. In fact, you're digging yourself a hole by suggesting communication costs are more important to review than the project issues. The cost savings may be the result of tough, drawn-out negotiations for which you worked hard, and the project delay may be caused by end users who are too busy to complete testing. But by failing to understand your management group's expectation and viewpoint, you may actually be turning a performance win into a loss. Managing Up And Down Once you understand it, managing the perception process is no real mystery. It means three things: --Determining who you really work for—that is, who ultimately approves/influences your budget and compensation. --Assessing how those individuals judge IT effectiveness—that is, the markers or indicators on which they base their judgment. --Determining who influences their view. If you can't articulate those factors, you can't ensure that the most important metrics on which you're evaluated are being achieved. When you work with key influencers to understand how they judge IT, you can better deliver to their expectations. In the morning, you deliver the goods. In the afternoon, you make sure your stakeholders understand the goods are being delivered. While it may be obvious to manage up, taking your end users into account is important, too. For example, upgrading a storage system can immediately lead to the potential removal of storage limits for an end user. Consider staging the introduction of the benefits. You'd rather deliver improvements continually than sporadically or just once. Engage your end users in IT processes. From time to time, many organizations run into storage-space issues with e-mail systems, and we're no exception. Monitoring and management of e-mail is clearly a back-office IT job. But when sudden spikes in mail storage occur, simply deleting E-mail won't solve the problem. Unplanned downtime is usually required to move data and storage systems around, compress databases, and clean things up. As part of your response plan, consider issuing a broadcast message that warns of potential downtime and asks users to clean out their mail folders. Technically, this request is of little value in resolving the problem. Space isn't released back to the system when most e-mail is deleted. IT specialists may question the value of issuing such an advisory, even wondering if you might be airing "dirty laundry"—after all, maybe the problem will be corrected and there will be no impact. However, it accomplishes two key objectives related to managing perceptions. First, it prepares the organization for unplanned disruption of the e-mail system should it occur. Second, and more important, it results in every user owning a bit of the problem. Users must now take some ownership in the consequences. Hopefully, there's no further unplanned downtime, and again, expectations will be exceeded. Try to anticipate the next requirement of your user population and respond in advance. We develop a lot of software in-house, and part of the discipline is to say to ourselves, "What will they ask for next?" For example, if we're developing a new system to generate some management information, we try to determine what the next request will be once our users have the information they wanted. It's not that difficult, but there's a natural reluctance to do this because you're creating more work for yourself. I see a great deal of similarity to playing chess in that we try hard to anticipate the next two or three moves. If you anticipate reasonably well, you'll be able to respond to the next set of requirements extremely quickly, because in essence, they will have already been addressed. You might call this "so then what?" thinking. Try to build an attitude of anticipation in the fabric of your IT solutions delivery methodology. Anticipation goes beyond a specific functional need. You must understand business direction and anticipate initiatives. Invite yourself to departmental meetings and visit with senior management to chat about their current plans and activities. Try to anticipate their concerns and ask questions on those subjects before they do. "Why haven't we connected electronically with supplier XYZ? It would make sense to do so, wouldn't it?" You should ask the question because you're a partner in solving problems and creating new value through innovation. The best way to be treated like a partner is to treat others as your partners first. There are many other small things that can be done to be sure you're creating the right perception of IT while you deliver the goods. Some of these may seem trite, unnecessary, and at times even wasteful, especially to technology professionals. Nevertheless, it will take many service-level charts, ITIL processes, and Strategic Systems Business Plan documents to counter negative perceptions and gut feelings in the boardroom. Fundamentally, you must judge yourself in the eyes of your stakeholders. Mike Cuddy is VP and CIO at Toromont Industries Ltd.