CIO Leadership and the Privilege of Protection


Tina Nunno, Gartner Inc., Contributor

March 12, 2015

In my work with CIOs, I’ve heard them describe situations where they witnessed colleagues who behaved poorly by attempting to intimidate others into getting what they wanted or derailed meetings by taking over the agenda. Sometimes CIOs accepted budget cuts that put IT and the enterprise at risk. Many CIOs agree to a portfolio of IT work that is requested by colleagues, but will fail to provide the enterprise any competitive advantage. In all of these cases, the CIOs expressed frustration that they wished “someone would do something.” My reply, “Why not you?”

As a leader, perhaps you ought to think of yourself as in the “protection business.” Let me explain. One facet of your job as a CIO or IT executive is to protect your team, your department, people in other departments, and your enterprise. You also have a responsibility to protect yourself. Do you have the ability, the arsenal, and the inclination to protect others and yourself? Or do you think, “No, they all need to learn how to protect themselves?”

If you tend toward the latter, you may have fallen victim to the “corporate cage match” mentality that advocates putting our employees in direct competition with one another and letting them fight everything out among themselves. I believe those who advocate the “corporate cage match” approach to conflict are often actually conflict-avoidant. They abdicate the responsibility of drawing the line, and rather than stand for something, they stand apart and watch the carnage unfold. They accept the trappings of leadership, but not the privilege of protecting the enterprise and those within it for whom they are responsible.

Some of you may not want to be in the protection business. Sometimes protection implies conflict and fighting. More so, it means that when you believe someone is behaving inappropriately or putting someone else at risk, you will step in, draw a line in the sand and hold that line. Protection is not simply fighting for fighting’s sake. It means fighting for something of value.

A CIO recently shared with me an incident where an unpleasant stakeholder disrupted and took over an IT governance meeting. The CIO chose not to criticize the stakeholder during the meeting based on the common guideline to “praise in public and criticize in private.” While I agree with the intent, it falls short of my protection principle by leaving other meeting attendees in the line of fire, and sending a public message that such behavior is acceptable.

For CIOs who see the value of protection, consider asserting your leadership in these important areas:

Protect your staff and colleagues
As a CIO, is it your job to protect your team from an excessive workload? Should you protect them from urgent requests that aren’t really urgent but cause them to work unnecessarily long hours? Is it your job to advocate for your team, champion the team members and help manage their reputations, or does that responsibility fall to someone else? If not you, then who else?

Unfortunately, too many CIOs see their roles as service providers to their “internal customers.” They may sacrifice the quality of life of their own staff in the interest of making other colleagues “happy.” They risk forfeiting part of their protection role and sending a message that the individuals on their team do not matter as much as others in the enterprise.

Additionally, how should you protect colleagues from themselves? When they ask for IT that puts the enterprise at risk, or fail to fund IT adequately enough to run the business, do you help steer them away? If they are not taking enough risk do you take action?

CIOs and IT leaders in a service provider stance often give colleagues what they ask for, regardless of how ill-advised or reckless those requests may be, because otherwise they may be berated for a lack of “customer service.” When this happens, everyone loses, from the IT staff who become disengaged from their own businesses, to our colleagues who sometimes need to be protected from themselves, and most of all, to the real enterprise customers who buy your products and services and want a great digital experience.

Protect your core values and principles
What values and principles do you stand for that define a line you will not cross, and that you will not let others cross to protect them and the enterprise? Do you expect that others will treat the members of your department with a certain level of respect, courtesy and professionalism? Do you expect that level of professional behavior across your enterprise? When someone crosses that line, what do you do? Do you step in and take a stand, or do you do something else?

Think, for example, of when a CIO allows “those who shout the loudest” to get time and resources from IT rather than aspiring to make good investment decisions by asking the tough business questions. Appeasement may be an attractive short-term strategy when dealing with a difficult stakeholder, but it can quickly set a long-term precedent that places the enterprise at risk of a portfolio of poor investments.

Shore up your arsenal to protect what you value
Often, CIOs do not feel empowered to take a strong, protective leadership role and draw lines to protect themselves and others in the enterprise. This is part of the service provider problem. Service providers don’t draw lines; rather they are discouraged from having any boundaries at all and are told that ideal behavior means saying “yes” all the time. Yet the same parties asking for “yes” would benefit from CIOs who protect the enterprise by challenging them, drawing lines in the sand when it makes sense, asking tough questions, and proactively helping the enterprise achieve competitive advantage. CIOs should embrace this role.

Why not you?
You probably have a great deal more in your protection arsenal than you realize. You may have left the arsenal in the closet because you didn’t think it was your job to use it in this manner. Consider your ability to say “no” to unreasonable requests, to ask the difficult questions such as, “How does it benefit the bottom line if we do that?” And to set boundaries that protect the entire enterprise. Leadership is a privileged opportunity to help reduce and manage conflict by setting ambitious goals for how we treat each other and how we fulfill the enterprise’s goals. As you work to protect your team and enterprise, when others say, “Why the CIO?” ask, “Why not?”

Tina Nunno is vice president and Gartner Fellow at Gartner. She is also author of the book The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing, A Machiavellian Strategy for Successful IT Leadership.

This article was written by Gartner Inc. from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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