The Renaissance Leader

By Robert Johansen  |  Posted 02-04-2002 Print Email

The Renaissance Leader

Renaissance CIOs make themselves highly visible within their organization, building relationships and trust with peers, working persistently and facing boldly the tough decisions that go with the job. They lead without controlling, without simply telling people what to do. Traditional IT leaders were trained to control, and systems were the medium of control. The common term "control systems" now appears quaint, however, perhaps even sinister. Today's organizations are part order, part chaos—what Dee Hock, the founder and CEO emeritus of Visa International, calls "chaordic." Visa's IT systems produce and assist at least as much chaos as they do order. Leaders in a chaordic organization decide when to lean in toward chaos and when to steer toward order, and the Renaissance CIO is a master at navigating the straits between the two.

The days are long gone when it was fashionable for senior managers to declare, "I am not a technologist, nor do I personally use computers." What was fashionable then is embarrassing now. Today, computers and the Internet are so pervasive that every manager must be proficient in directly using computers and networks. Renaissance CIOs lead the way in the effective use of IT on the part of managers in the organization. Communications are generally face-to-face or electronic—paper memos have virtually disappeared. Like every other effective executive, Renaissance CIOs, despite an affinity for e-mail, "drop in" when only face-to-face will suffice. Renaissance CIOs, like other leaders, now have a mental algorithm that suggests to them which medium works best for the task they must perform. In-person meetings, for example, are typically best for orientation, trust-building and team renewal sessions. Implementation, however, requires asynchronous media—e-mail, intranets, project databases—in order to maintain speed, particularly if the work is distributed. Face-to-face has become just one method of communication in the mix.

Like the CFO's fiduciary responsibility for ensuring that financial resources are secure and effectively managed, the CIO has a similar fiduciary responsibility for the corporation's information resources. When these resources are limited to accounting and budgeting for hardware purchases, packaged software, programming resources, maintenance and so forth, a conventional CIO can handle the responsibility. But Renaissance CIOs extend this fiduciary stewardship by working to maximize the value of the information contained in the organization's systems—even though that value is not directly measured, budgeted for or well understood by higher management. The Renaissance CIO thus extends this fiduciary responsibility from cost minimization to value maximization—from saving money to making money.

In keeping with their managerial style and active management of information assets, Renaissance CIOs must not only be smart leaders but wise leaders—a more complex and subtle task indeed. Smart leaders see only the "technology trees," though they can count them precisely. But the wise leader sees the "information forest." Smart leaders are focused on speed, responding rapidly and driving for fast turnaround. A wise leader looks for the long waves of change, beyond the momentary pressures. A wise leader can also be fast, but the speed is part of a larger, longer-term strategic context. Smart leaders are tempted into habits, done over and over again to increase speed, while losing sight of their original purpose. The wise leader creates practices—activities he or she performs in a variety of circumstances that improve with experience.

Today's top corporate IT manager faces the highest rate of change of any senior manager. The rules for success for the top IT executive continue to change faster than the location of Nathan Detroit's floating craps game in the musical Guys and Dolls. Yet many of the most talented executives continue to seek out the top IT jobs in their companies, and thrive on the challenge. That is the Renaissance CIO: an executive with a unique view of his or her role within the company who is unafraid of the difficulties—architectural, managerial and strategic—of the job. For Renaissance CIOs, it's not just the best position in the company, it's the only one they want.

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Richard L. Nolan is the William Barclay Harding Professor of Management of Technology at Harvard Business School. His latest book, Sense and Respond: Capturing Value in the Network Era, was published by HBS Press in 1998.

David C. Croson, an assistant professor of operations and information management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, researches such issues as the economics of IT and organizations, and the role of information systems in negotiating and sustaining strategic alliances.

Robert Johansen, president of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., is currently researching new models for leadership.


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