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Snips and Snails and Puppydog Tails April 16, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Apparently, little boys (and little girls, for that matter) were figured out long ago, content-wise.  CIOs, in contrast, seem to be in a state of constant flux.

As you climb the management ladder in IT, you remove yourself from the technology that attracted you to the field in the first place.  Your time is increasingly occupied with issues that allow your company to use information technology to further its business.  By the time you reach the top of the chain, your staff wouldn’t let you near a machine with a ten foot pole.  I have a notorious reputation as a Breaker Of Things; my staff visibly tenses up when I make the occasional foray into the data center to reconnect with blinking lights and cold air.

Given this career transition, what are CIOs made of?  My recipe: 40% accountant, 40% attorney, and 20% psychologist.  Here’s why:

  • Accountant: Good CIOs focus on business value.  Each company may have different ways to measure business value, but in the end it is a financial metric, not a technical one.  Moreover, the language of business is financial.  To have a credible leadership presence in your company, you must be able to translate technology into financial terms.  Sometimes those terms are in hard-dollar returns; in other cases it may be in terms of business advantage, time to market, process enhancement, or other fundamentally financial metrics.  If terms like EBITDA, GAAP, and SOX aren’t part of your vocabulary, or you can’t explain when to use expense versus capital dollars, you may be falling short in this area.
  • Attorney: Good CIOs know how to negotiate and close a deal.  Vendor management largely revolves around good contractual management.  You need the basic legal skills to understand contractual terms, assess liability, and understand how to build solutions that protect your company from a legal perspective.  So much of what IT confronts these days is about compliance, exposure, and risk management.  You must be able to work in this world comfortably.  CIOs may also be called upon to be deposed on behalf of their company and should understand the basics of litigation and representation.
  • Psychologist: When things go bad and systems unravel, CIOs may find themselves talking everyone else down from the ledge.  Technology is a great mystery to almost everyone; when it falls apart, you must be able to lead people to a stable solution.  Increasingly, the projects we sponsor are technologically straightforward (install a new reporting system) but socially difficult (and make everyone give up their existing personal spreadsheets).  This kind of social engineering can be quite rewarding but requires deft people skills and the ability to see the world through your users’ eyes.

This isn’t to say that you can forget your technology roots.  Inside your organization, you need the technical chops to evaluate solutions, challenge your people, and be able to hold your own in the occasional hallway debate.  CIOs lacking business skills will fail outside their organization; CIOs lacking technical skills will fail inside their organization.

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