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How to Fail as a CIO

Success in any job is measured by the alignment of expectations and performance. If the company expects “X” and you deliver “Y” then you fail, no matter whether or not “X” is achievable and no matter whether or not “Y” is actually better for the company. If it’s impossible to deliver “X” in the desired time frame and with the resources you’ve been given, then job success depends on your being able to credibly convince executives in your company that their expectations are unrealistic. And if “X” is inappropriate – something that’s not really where the company should be putting its energy – then your job success depends on you determining the more important objectives and then convincing executives that another focus is better.

A good CIO knows that there are two important components of success in an executive position, and both components are required for success. On the one hand is what most people think the job is: making the things happen that you committed to do. But on the other hand is a more subtle aspect of the job: determining the right thing to do for the company and then convincing other executives in the company that the right thing is what needs to be done. A CIO who neglects the second component of success doesn’t deserve to be called a CIO; he’s not a leader – he’s just a manager.

How most companies find a CIO
Finding the right CIO for a company requires three things:

  1. You have to know what’s really needed in the company.
  2. You have to get executives in the company to agree on those objectives.
  3. You have to find someone as CIO who has the experience and talent to be able to achieve those objectives.

The typical CIO’s job is more difficult because most CIO searches do these three things in the wrong sequence. The search focuses on finding someone who can achieve the objectives that the company has defined, even though in most cases the company really doesn’t know what the right CIO objectives should be. As a result, newly hired CIOs often go into their new jobs focused on the wrong things – the things they were told to do by the hiring executives. Instead, a new CIO should focus on doing three things simultaneously:

  • Make sure that existing bad things don’t get any worse.
  • Work on the key areas that were identified by the hiring executives.
  • Learn as much as possible about what the company really needs, and then convince the business executives that priorities ought to be changed.

Of course, once in a while the key areas identified by the hiring executives really are what the company really needs, and then the second and third items in the priority list become the same. It’s great when that happens, but I haven’t seen it happen often.

The CIO Prospect Game
There’s a game that CIO prospects have to play during the interview process. The game is to try to sell yourself for the job while simultaneously trying to get a handle on how far out of whack the perception of IT is in the hiring company. You want a job, of course, so you have to be nice. But you also want to avoid walking into a situation where failure is inevitable.

A CIO friend of mine who’s now in the job market told me about one such situation. The interviewing executive gave him a whole list of complaints about the company’s current IT, but when my friend asked about the company’s commitment to try to improve things, he was told that the company wants a total revamp of IT without investing any additional money or business executive time. My friend declined to go further in the interview process, but I know that eventually that company will find a CIO candidate who’s not as picky. My guess is that the CIO position will be open again within a year if the new CIO can’t change the minds of the company’s executives.

How to Fail as a CIO
The awful truth about being a CIO is that there are a lot more ways to fail than to succeed:

  1. You can fail to deliver key projects.
  2. You can be ambushed by deficiencies in your infrastructure (e.g., customer credit card information leaks out).
  3. You can be overwhelmed by thousands of small things that add up (e.g., massive support problems due to poor control over PCs).
  4. You can waste millions of dollars on tools and infrastructure because unreasonable user demands force you to support too many conflicting platforms.
  5. You can focus your organization’s efforts on the wrong things (usually discovered when your company’s competition comes out with something that you could have done).
  6. You can even do everything else right but fail because you don’t hit it off with the other executives.

But let’s be clear about all of these failures. They all come down to the statement I made earlier in this article: If the company expects “X” and you deliver “Y” then you fail. Sure it’s important for you to be able to deliver, but in my experience ninety percent or more of CIO failures come from not managing the expectations of your business executives. Make sure that if “Y” is going to be delivered, then “Y” is what’s expected. Managing expectations is the way to avoid CIO failure.

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