Saturday, February 16, 2013

The CIO’s Tough Choice II: Being a strategic leader or a Hands-on Manager?

The tough choice facing CIOs is not about only picking one identity as either being strategic or tactical, but about WHEN- should act as a strategic leader, when should play as a tactical manager.

Compared to other traditional executive positions, the CIO is a considerably new role with more than two decades of history; due to technology's change nature, IT and CIOs seem always to be in the hot seat, need to continue to be refreshed and adaptable; due to misunderstanding of IT, many organizations also unrealistically want their CIOs to be good at everything, so contemporary CIOs face another tough choice: being a strategic leader or hands-on manager?

The daily tasks of CIOs may depend on the nature of organizations and business agenda, but importantly, CIOs shouldn't just keep their hands full, they also need to keep mind active/proactive, only CIOs with growing mentality can lead their organization's IT-catalyzed growth agenda. 

1.    CIOs need to Be Strategic about "WHY" & “WHAT”

For most of the enterprises, the true focus of a CIO is the strategic vision, not the day to day operation as this should be delegated. Being strategic or transformational means CIOs should always stay focus on the big picture of the business, ensure doing right things, leveraging and prioritizing, won't get lost or burned out in continuous IT overload.

  • Contribute to Strategic Planning: As such, CIOs must be the strategic leader as their peer executive officers must be - know the whole business model, understand the markets the business operates in, understand the competitive landscape, have a medium/long term investment and performance horizon in mind, contribute to the company's strategic planning and IT strategy, understand how IT can/will enable these strategic plans to be delivered. Strategic Planning by definition is translating the company vision into broadly defined goals or objectives. Then the value of the CIO becomes their ability to align. Making sure that the money being spent on IT is aligned with the long-term goals of the company and not just have fun with new technologies. 
  • There's a clear understanding of what the priorities need to be: At these days, even being strategic doesn't mean you just get to know those strategy frameworks, then you turn to be a strategist automatically, more often than not, there's insight underneath, and there're a lot of things CIOs may already be familiar with, such as enterprise architecture, the latest technology trend, etc. and CIOs need set project priority, weave the clear picture of business by crafting IT capabilities and competitive differentiators to ensure business for long-term perspectives. 
  • The CIO should know his/her roles and responsibilities very well: Taking leadership with full involvement in the strategy, the plan and performance measurement is the crucial function for the CIO. The "hands-on" piece needs to be executed through the CIO appointing the right leadership team who can deliver well, and commit time and attention to effective governance, performance checks, and balances. The CIO's ability to "pick the right team" probably tops everything - knowing what you need, why and then who. The CIO as a senior executive role in most of the organizations, being strategic is one of the senior leadership qualities

2.    CIOs should be Hands-On “WHERE”

Most IT managers who progress through the ranks have a hard time letting go of what made them successful. But once they get passed that and learn to be strategic, they often have the ability to move back and forth effectively. CIOs do need be tactical when necessary, but being hands-on means CIOs shouldn't ignore key details or measure results, envisioning the future and seeing around the corner are both important -why, who, what, when, where, how., etc. all matter. ...

  • Where to“hands-on” means how to empower their people to make decisions and therefore execute what is required with a mentoring approach –they need to be hands for a finite period of time to teach, coach and lead their managers because there is a deficiency of skills that need to be developed or barriers that need to be overcome. Empowerment, empathy, and enablement are all crucial for executives to lead effectively, "hands-on," but "fingers-out," to well engage and motivate the team to take extra miles and encourage creativity. The dangers are getting too involved in the technologies and losing the sight of the real goals. Technology is not the goal, it is a tool to achieve the goal. CIOs must maintain vision on the goal.  
  • Hands-on role goes a long way to keep one's skill set fresh and thinking grounded: Every few years it's probably necessary to dive into an important (strategic) technology and get the fingers dirty to some degree. That's not to say letting others do their job goes away or that one stops listening to their professional colleagues. You do pay them for that! It is okay to be a student some of the time to keep the dust off that other hat. 
  • The key management needs to be in place for decision effectiveness and measurement: In order to fulfill their strategic and governance role, CIOs should have hands on the key management processes that feed them the facts upon which to make better strategic decisions and measure how well they are doing. For example, financial, demand and service portfolio management processes. CIOs who are wholly strategic and simply delegate is the increase in complexity of technologies. The technical decisions are left to the highly capable technical people who by their nature over-engineer everything. IT governance is only concerned with the alignment and prioritization so there is no safety net for over-engineering except cost which instead restricts optimization. 
  • More Pros and Cons of Hands On: Ineffective “hands-on” means they are interfering, undermining their people and therefore inhibiting the decision-making processes and stifling execution of the required deliverables – inevitably being so far down in the weeds also means that vision and the real strategy is lost to the detriment, on the other side, as opposed to meddling, tinkering, interfering or being overbearing, since the majority of IT is deep in the weeds, it can be helpful for the leadership to throw some wisdom in the mix at all levels. Most CIOs have a vast amount of knowledge of how technology should be used for supporting business. 
      Some of the consequences of a “hands-on” (micro-manager) CIO are:
  • Strategic decisions are influenced more by authority: That is, where you sit in proximity to the CIO, rather than a review and discussion of a structured analysis by your key business analysts.      
  • The flow of information between groups will slow if not stop: Clashing alternatives between different functional viewpoints are difficult to resolve. All problems and issues are escalated to the CIO because managers are afraid to make decisions and are not empowered to make decisions, This translates into passive resistance with your managers, a lack of ownership with employees as well as a feeling of disenfranchisement and lower job dissatisfaction.      
  • Decisions brought forward to the CIO are influenced by history or momentum rather than risk or governance: Fresh alternatives are not considered, managers are not encouraged to "think outside of the box."      
  • All decisions are made in the C-Suite: But little happens or is visible outside of the CIOs office. The CIO becomes a choke point for decisions.    
  • There is a general lack of clear priorities regarding investments and the strategic roadmap: if you ask managers what the strategic priorities are, you will get a different set of answers from each person.      
  • Your project office will see a proliferation of projects and initiatives: A lot of projects get started, few get completed, and nobody knows which one is more important so they can prioritize the work. Many of the important projects will become “initiatives” and not go through the PMO and often go underground because they cannot wait for approval of the CIO. 

3. Strike the Balance of Being a Strategic Leader and a Tactical Manager

CIOs have to balance both, the key is not whether a CIO CAN be effective as both a strategic leader and a hands-on manager, but WHEN a CIO should be a strategic leader and when she/he should be more hands-on. 

A CIO who is wholly strategic should still know what is going on in his/her organization tactically: Being too strategic when hands-on support is what’s called for will make you look obtuse, cartoonish, and irrelevant. CIO should be a strategic leader with the ability to have hands-on control of situations and projects while governing the IT decisions and policy of the facility; On the other hand, a purely hands-on CIO will create a highly dis-functional organization and will bring little value to the business. Being too hands-on when strategic leadership is needed will make you look like an untrusting, micro-managing, bureaucrat 

So how do you know which to be when?

  • A CIO who manages IT can effectively translate that vision and also execute it. A CIO who intimately understands the challenges and upheavals and provides guidance in key areas is in a better position to align his organization with the company vision. Every CIO does like to be a transformational leader as well as a strategic leader. However, it is also critically important to make sure business continuity. If CIOs foster and stabilize process-driven IT operation, it was relatively easy to switch over to the strategic role.
  • 80/20 Rule: If IT management discipline can be categorized into strategic practices; tactical practices and operational practice, then in most IT organizations, CIOs' role should fit in 80% of strategic practices and 20% of tactical work, also well assign the right talent for operational level works. Always ask self: if something happens to me, how easy will it be for someone on the team to assume that task?
  • A transformational CIO has to first stop the pain, take care of chronic operational issues and deliver much-requested upgrades and tactical solutions: Establish credibility, demonstrate that you understand the business, and you can act, not just plan the future. When the transformation is over, a good CIO takes the business to an elevated level of steady state: better business KPIs, stable and available applications.
In conclusion, CIOs as paradoxical business leaders, need to be strategic, but also should keep sharpening competencies to be tactical IT managers. The tough choice facing CIOs is not about only picking one identity as either being strategic or tactical, but about WHEN- should act as a strategic leader, when should play as a tactical manager and HOW to play each role effectively. The goal for effective CIOs is not to become micro-managers, but to be mature business leaders for leveraging and leading a high-performance IT organization.

More Tough Choices for Business to Make: 


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