BE the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT by Martha Heller; Book Review

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As a CIO/vCIO, sometimes I feel like I am on an island.  Responsible for much but no authority or power to make it happen.  I often wonder what happened from the “yes we need a CIO/vCIO” and when I start being one, for the organization there is so much pushback. As I have matured in this role both as CIO/vCIO for many companies over the years, this angst has continued and until recently, it felt as Heller explains, “…that CIOs should be responsible for the driving adoption in areas where they cannot possibly have as much influence as the executives who are actually managing those businesses.” 

Further, as a CIO/vCIO I have quickly discovered that after the ‘dating relationship’ newness wears off, I am treated much like Dalton (Roadhouse reference).  Seriously, there are a lot of similarities between being a CIO/vCIO and Dalton. In attempting to ‘clean things up’ for instance, you are put into conflicts against those who have established silos, ingrained politics, turf wars, and on top of all that, you are the voice for all things technology for the organization.  I must remind that it does NOT include the throat punches, and martial arts, although I am convinced that there is nothing a sidekick does not cure being a Bruce Lee fan!. 

Recently, during one of these trying times, I came across this book.  This book refreshed me with my love for all things CIO/vCIO, and I was highlighting quote after quote and wishing the current organizations I am working with would read/hear the same things found in this great work. This book made me realize that I am not on an island and many other CIO/CTO/vCIO all are feeling/dealing with the same struggles. I needed this book to remind me I was not alone and that I am doing the right thing. It is my hope that you too, will consider adding this excellent book to your library for many of the same reasons. There are interviews with over 60 CIO’s of many recognizable brands who provide insight, advice, and reflect what it means to be the business as a CIO.

Heller describes a CIO being the business as, “moving from enabling the business to being the business is the challenging work. It means changing governance models, organizational structures, delivery methodologies, and hiring practices. It means transforming IT people from technologists to strategists, from constructing hard lines around IT to creating an environment devoid of organization boundaries and clamping down on employees’ attempts to develop their own technology to embracing end-user information. It also means a driving change in the most difficult of all areas: the mindset, the psyche, the most deeply held ways that we understand our jobs, our success, and our professional identity.

For the rest of the review until the conclusion, I would like to share a few (okay – a LOT) quotes that reflect the value, the innovation, the forward-thinking, the new digital service economy, the other CIO/CTO’s who are overcoming and making things happen by being the Dalton’s and being the business.

Someone once told me that, when your operations are not good, you should not talk strategy. Fair enough, but the opposite is also true. If your operations are good, then you must talk strategy.”

“In my previous book, The CIO Paradox, I called this phenomenon the ‘accountability vs. ownership’ paradox, where CIOs are responsible for outcomes of technology implementations but do not have the power to change the business process.”

“Lately, however, I have changed my thinking on this. I have a new Greek mythological figure in mind for the CIO: Cassandra. Cassandra made the critical relationship-building error spitting on Apollo. As retaliation, Apollo gave Cassandra the power of prophecy, but also the curse of never being believed. (Cassandra eventually goes insane, by the way, so you all have that to look forward to.)”

“…it takes a big ego to have a small ego, and humility (along with chutzpah, of course) is a critical attribute for CIO.”

The CIO is the one leader who can see everything that is happing within the organization. The CIO looks at every transaction and every customer service experience that takes place on the digital platform. With that unique perspective, the CIO understands where efficiency is happening and where it is not. The position, at its most basic level, has moved from someone who just accepted the way things were, to someone who uses that visibility to create aha moments for all leaders across the organization.”

“When you have a bunch of disparate systems, you typically have different vintages of technologies and fragmented processes. If one technology is five years old, and other is twenty-five years old, your users have to open multiple screens; they do not have a seamless process. The challenge of disparate systems extends past technology and process. Disparate systems have a direct impact on the way employees think about their jobs. If your legacy systems require users to break down processes into little pieces, you wind up with people who cannot think holistically about problems.”

“Your first step in running IT like a business is to stop thinking of IT investments as OPM [other people’s money] and treat it as if it were your own.”

“Because IT people can see so much, it is their responsibility to influence investment priorities, not just execute on priorities set by internal business partners.”

“CIOs, more than any other executive, have an end-to-end view of how the business works and the tools to turn that view into insights. CIOs can see endless opportunities for improvement and change.”

“But here’s the rub: looking across silos for opportunities to improve capabilities is one thing; creating a vision for how to seize those opportunities is another. Communicating that vision effectively is harder still. But the real work, the deepest work, is the deciding to stick your neck out in the first place.”

If you want to have an impact in your company, have a point of view that sometimes challenges the status quo but do the work required to make the point of view an informed one.”

“…most CEO would rather not hear your brilliant strategies if e-mail is down.”

“The challenge is to take that perspective and turn it into knowledge your company can act upon.”

“In every IT transformation, you make major tradeoffs between current and future functionality, and you need to let the company’s needs drive your decision around strategy, investment, and the sequencing of change. It’s company first, your organization second, and you as a leader third.”

“Identifying patterns is where we create competitive advantage.”

“As CIO, you are the first to step into traffic, to stand alone during a period of change before people come on board. That takes personal courage.”

Traditionally, in IT, we like to please. But IT is not a popularity contest; it’s a reality show where we often have to deliver tough information…Being a CIO means having the courage not to cut corners to please a stakeholder and delivering the hard message that this is not a risk we’re willing to take.”

“There is an essential contradiction between telling senior IT leadership teams that they always need a business sponsor and raising a generation of IT leaders who have the courage of their convictions. I see this paradox as the most potentially debilitating force in IT’s ability to be the business.”

To my mind, storytelling is one of the most important skills a CIO can process. In the boardroom, the story is one of finance; in your IT leadership meetings, the story is one of vision, teamwork, andimage value; and with your customers, you tell a story of comfort, convenience, revenue, or happiness.”

“As CIO, I know that part of IT’s job is to fulfill requests, but our real job is to understand the business and come up with innovative ideas.”

We don’t subscribe to one standard overall; we use best of the breed. But when you are having fact-based conversations and then you tie your delivery practices to industry standards, you are reinforcing the fact-based approach. This is not just ‘Jay’s way’; this is the industry’s way.”

IT CODE, an acronym for integrity, teamwork, communication, ownership, dedication, and excellence.”

“To change this, he pushed decision rights and budget authority down into the organization as far as he could. “We were very open about our budget, and we delegated approval authority incrementally. Now a much larger percentage of IT people can make decisions about training and purchasing; we eliminated a lot of the red tape and bureaucracy.”

If you are going to take advantage of partnerships, you have to lose the mentality that you have to develop your solution yourself. By relying on the work of others, you’ll move faster.”

“I value the skill of being able to make a decision and move forward…We need our people to fall in love with making a difference to the business.”

“They can write and I can read; we know that. Rather than focus on skills and experiences, Olley interviews for two raw capabilities: ‘Clear thinkers—people who can cut through the day-to-day ambiguity to create clarity on how to move forward; and strategic pragmatists—people who are strategic enough to make a plan but pragmatic enough to know that they might not implement all of it.”

“This program will help participants understand how to meet new expectations for their role. These new expectations start with accountability: IT employees need to do more than implementing what is requested. They need to ensure the right choices are made and the expected business value is achieved. To do so, IT employees need to build strategic relationships with their business partners. This requires good subject-matter expertise and the courage to initiate or engage in discussions about relevant business problems.”

“My rock star tag (which I will apply very selectively) is reserved for that beautiful unicorn, the executive who has it all: relationship building, delivery, excellence, deep technology roots, strategic thinking and depth in whatever industry my client represents.”

When you let go of the notion that IT must control all technology development, you have the potential to open the floodgates on innovation. The traditional CIO mindset has always been ‘It’s my silo and you can’t come in’. But IT is no longer a skillet, it’s a toolkit and my job as CIO is to give everyone access to the toolkit. When you build a platform that allows you to crowd source innovation, then anybody can be a developer.”

“For Bill Gates, it was not about being perfect and having every feature in the product in every release. If you have bugs, communicate them, but ship software, because if you are not getting software into your user’s hands, your failing.”

“If a business leader is confronted with an urgent situation, and the IT leader says, ‘I have to check with someone, because that’s not my responsibility,’ it’s like seeing some drowning in a swimming pool, and saying, ‘I could save you, but I’m not the lifeguard. As CIO, you need to give your people the authority to make a broad set of decisions in real time.”

“Security will always be the top priority for CIOs, whether they know it or not.”

“It’s pointless to have metrics without consequences.”

“Its hard to start in the data center and find your way to the user.”

“It takes two to be transparent. One who is willing to show and another who is willing to see.”

Having good relationships is the difference between getting support in front of the board or hearing crickets.”

“If the business has not tried to hire one of my business relationship managers, I am doing something wrong.”

IT transformation is more about relationships than technology.”

“We don’t need a digital strategy—we need a business strategy for a digital world.”

So with all of these quotes, you can see why I don’t feel like an island. There are others out there who are doing what I am doing, feeling what I am feeling, and surround by people who support them, thus they are making it happen. If you have not figured it out, relationships are the key. I would add the right kind of relationships are the key and I am not just referencing key positional ones, I am referencing authentic, transparent, and integrity in those relationships. I recently told someone, “I realize that the culture is about relationships, however, if I am not a professional and have integrity, there is no relationship. Personal relationships are a gift of the professional relationship.” Said another way, if my email is down, our relationship outside of business really does not matter.

Being a CIO/vCIO today is a great and fulfilling joy to me. I also relish the relationships, love being around the technology, and verticals. I would recommend this excellent work, as it will remind you of these things if you have forgotten. 

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure. –Eric Liddell