Opinion by Al Kuebler

What it takes to be a proactive IT leader

The idea that IT professionals don't need business acumen is a destructive myth

Opinion by Al Kuebler

Show More

Let me be very clear: As an IT professional wishing to make a lasting and strategic impact on your enterprise, you must be a proactive partner in realizing what its leaders wish to achieve.

The value of IT is under assault every day. You might chalk this up to business leaders who just don't get IT; that's what I used to think. But then I learned a much more productive approach, encapsulated in the IT value proposition (see chart below). I recommend it to any IT leader who wants a lasting career leading teams that make significant contributions to the performance of the business (while getting all of the recognition due them). Business leaders are not likely to get IT until you explain its value to them in ways they understand. Once you begin to do that, you will earn their respect. They will consider you a proactive partner and a powerful ally in achieving success for them and the enterprise.

In my book, I present many lessons from my career in information technology, but collectively, they are summarized in that opening paragraph above. If you don't want to run the risk of being just another CIO whose initialism stands for "career is over," I strongly suggest that you take it to heart.

I know that many of you will protest that the attacks on the IT function simply aren't justified. Well, some of them are, though I agree that many of them are not. That isn't the point, really. I've seen well-intended and capable IT managers at all levels attacked for problems with business profitability and growth that were completely the responsibility of the business unit making the attack. When it happens, what matters is not whether the attack is justified; the important thing is how the IT manager addresses it. IT managers who believe that what they are doing is an isolated and reactive specialty and the only thing in the enterprise that is worthy of their focus are often caught off balance by such attacks. And they usually end up being replaced.


Relationships Are Everything

For the reactive IT manager, it's simply incomprehensible that anyone in the business leadership might not fully understand or appreciate what IT does. More often than not, this is why such managers spend so little time explaining to business peers what they're up to (and virtually no time finding out what their business peers are up to). In their minds, the necessity of what the IT function does is so obvious that it's inconceivable that it would ever have to be spelled out for anyone with the mental capacity to run a business unit.

The proactive IT manager, on the other hand, is better equipped to handle such an attack, because he or she has strong relationships that run deep throughout the enterprise that make it possible to understand the problem at its root and suggest ways that technology could help overcome it. More importantly, though, if the IT function is a proactive partner to the enterprise and every business in it, it would be just plain silly to attack it.

The proactive IT leader is keenly aware that the IT function will have value only if it benefits the enterprise and if those benefits are clearly understood at all levels, both in the company and in the IT function itself. I like the phrase "part of it, proud of it" as a way to express how the proactive IT community relates to the business it serves.

Once these goals are understood, the principles and objectives necessary to achieve them almost suggest themselves. All the same, I will provide you with some guidelines to help you get on the right path.

Learn about the business your function serves, and get involved in making it better. If you believe that IT professionals don't need any particular insight into the nature of the business they serve, then you have bought into a destructive myth. IT leadership cannot remain isolated from the business it serves. A proactive leader seeks to understand as much as possible about how the enterprise acquires customers and makes money, strives to see its business performance goals from a shareholder perspective, uncovers the things restricting strategic achievement, and absorbs every part of the annual report. With that information, the IT leader can prepare a list of initiatives that the IT function could pursue to avoid cost, improve service and increase revenue.

Depend on others to define the value of your efforts. The proactive IT leader determines which business leaders can influence his or her success. Those people are IT's clients. You must meet with each of them and have wide-ranging discussions to find out what their goals are. Your value will be proportional to the degree to which you can help them achieve their success. Ask them how your IT function could make things better for them. Their answers will direct your team's efforts. And remember, this is not a one-time exercise. Repeat these meetings routinely; don't wait until there is a crisis.

Build a creative IT organization. Creative organizations are more flexible, move much faster and are much more competitive. That requires stripping away bureaucracy, so that decisions for action can be made at every level in the IT function. And it requires making it clear to your staff that when their initiatives lead to mistakes, their careers won't suffer. Your staff members need to feel safe and know there is little or no risk associated with being creative. (Allowing for risk-free mistakes is probably too radical, but do set an example by tolerating most mistakes, especially when initiative is involved.) In fact, a mistake made by a trusted and experienced employee who has taken initiative on behalf of a client can be invaluable if it is turned into a lesson that is openly shared. When no mistakes are made, then no creative initiatives are being undertaken, and that means no growth, or worse.

Embrace change. Astute IT management accepts that the IT function will adapt as the business and technology worlds around it change. But we all resist change, even though the most significant events in our careers are those that force us to change. And the more experienced we are, the more we fear to venture. However, it is essential to embrace the idea that change is not only anticipated (as it must be in the world of IT), but is also very beneficial to the enterprise. In fact, the IT function is a powerful business change agent. Most CEOs know this and expect their IT management to show them how the introduction of emerging technologies and new approaches can accelerate and improve their strategic business performance. Business general managers increasingly look to IT to introduce change through beneficial ideas that arise because of IT's unique perception of the entire enterprise. I can guarantee you that change will happen anyway; you might as well lead it, help it along and target it.

Measure quality in IT services. This is one of the most critical factors in making IT a proactive partner to the business. You are not going to get blind acceptance of what IT is doing, and acting as if you should is a career-limiting move for any CIO. Measuring IT quality involves jointly setting service-level standards, providing recognition for joint accomplishment, showing the enterprise that the IT function is not resting in terms of its performance and productivity, leading the way in continuous improvement, and much more. Doing all of this has become easier as IT best practices have matured. The payoffs are improved IT productivity and the endorsement you will get from your business peers.

Hire the best people, and hold on to them. You can't have a creative IT organization without the best people. It's a lot of work sorting out the best and finding ways to attract them and keep them, but it's worth it. The surest way to outperform the competition is to have better people than them. And of course, we all know that outcomes don't turn out the way we planned them. But if we have the best people and they are properly organized and motivated, they will be able to deal with the unexpected things that are sure to come.

Benchmark the IT function. This lets you show how your internal IT function outperforms other commercial offerings available to the company, at a lower cost. And if a non-strategic service can be done cheaper, faster and better by an external provider, you have an obligation to the stockholders to suggest moving to it. It's also important to realize that benchmarking can pinpoint areas that need attention. Just be aware that benchmarking by itself can lead to mediocrity. Getting your IT services to the point where they are considered "commercial grade" is just your starting point for continuous improvement. Take this seriously, or your stockholders will soon have the burden of paying the profit margin of an outside commercial IT service provider. And with the IT function farmed out, there won't be much left for a CIO to do.

Know your numbers. You have to be prepared to answer questions such as: "What percentage of the enterprise's total revenue is your IT budget?" "What is the annual rate of change for the IT budget?" "How much has the IT function's productivity improved over the last three years?" "How has the IT function helped the enterprise avoid cost, improve service or increase revenue? By how much?" "Why should a stockholder want to give any CIO any increase at all?" "How much would the company spend if it outsourced the entire IT function?" "Does the IT function deliver useful information to the business, and how does that quantifiably help the company's competitive position, in terms of profit?" If you don't have answers, no worries; you'll get them. Or else.

Have a clue about what the IT future holds. As an IT leader, it is part of your job to keep an eye on what is going to be coming in the technology sphere and introducing your enterprise to the ways it could benefit from it. If you are not aware of what is going on, you risk proposing investments in technology at the end of its technical life, and at much too high a price. When you do your research homework properly, you will know when a new technology has reached the maturity your organization needs before it becomes overpriced because of demand. The senior management committee will appreciate your research and forethought as you provide carefully considered advice on acquiring the IT capacity the company needs.

You want your IT function to work together as a team, so be a good team member yourself. The first step is to realize that your behavior will clearly signal whether or not you are a supportive member of your team. This will be noticed. Meet regularly at all levels with parts of your IT organization, in small enough groups so that you can know their names and functions and have one-to-one exchanges to better understand the challenges they face. It's wise to remember when you were in similar positions and to ask things such as "What do you need to be more productive?" Every second of these meetings, you'll be carefully observed for authentic team member behavior. Listen to your team members' concerns and questions, and keep in mind that if someone bothered to ask you about something, then he or she has the expectation that you might actually do something about it. Therefore, if possible, you must, and if you can't, then you need to explain why truthfully. Take notes so that you can follow up with appropriate actions when you can. If training is needed, fund it. If better equipment is needed, arrange for it when you can.

In all of this, your visibility and responsiveness will send the message that you will do all you can to enable your team to perform more effectively. And when you bother to find out what your team members want for their careers and give them tasks and training that help them get there, you generate energy, enthusiasm and excitement. Pay attention to individuals so you'll know who has potential, and then give them tasks that will make them stretch; never forget how good you felt when that was done for you. Your contribution to teamwork also requires you to set clear and unambiguous goals and to provide information freely so that the team knows where they stand regarding their progress in achieving them. When team members feel that they are believed in, trusted and know where they stand, they will help each other to jointly achieve their common goals. Your outcome will be an IT function with increased focus on results and an ever-increasing momentum toward their attainment.

Don't look back. What you design and produce today with care and love will be completely dismantled and rebuilt by your successors. Savor your successes, but keep them in the past. Keep your focus on moving your team forward to their next worthy achievement.

* * *

Did I say all this would be easy? I hope not.

But if you think that something from the list above will be particularly difficult for you because it just isn't one of your strengths, well, recognizing your weaknesses is itself a strength. The way you deal with that is to identify someone who has the strength you lack and ask that person to join your team. There is absolutely no need to be shy about that sort of thing. Every person I have ever approached in this way has appreciated the recognition, and working together only magnified the rapport we had. And don't forget, building rapport both within your team and among your peers is one of the main tasks of the proactive IT leader.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way, from which this article was adapted. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon