Darwin John: Networked for Life

By Darwin A. John  |  Posted 07-01-2004

Among the practices that most helped me when I was a CIO was dividing my time according to what I called the "third-third-third" model. As best I could, I tried to limit one third of my work time to minding the store and looking after day-to-day operations. I devoted another third to fostering strong relationships with peers and customers. The final third—and in my view the most critical—I set aside for learning.

It takes discipline to keep to this schedule; immediate tasks can easily overwhelm a CIO's day. And like other experienced executives in positions of power, CIOs can start believing they already know all they need to know about how to do their jobs. Yet I believe it's terribly important to set aside time to learn more about leadership, management, technology and your industry. As the saying goes, "When you are through learning, you are through." Nothing is more dangerous than believing you have all the answers; it's one of the surest ways to guarantee personal failure.

But where do you go learn? For me, professional IT associations—in particular, the Society for Information Management—have been central for learning and whatever success I've enjoyed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have been active in SIM for most of its 36 years, serving as president in 1983, and I am still active in its leadership development programs.) But would I still feel the same way if I were beginning my career now? CIOs have so many alternatives. Each year, IT vendors, event management firms, business schools, research and consulting firms, publishing companies, and other for-profit and nonprofit enterprises, as well as online communities, organize hundreds of conferences and Web seminars covering every conceivable topic on an IT executive's agenda. The result is an overwhelming plethora of useful information, and networking opportunities, for CIOs.

Given all this competition for CIOs' time, what should be the purpose of nonprofit professional membership associations? Does an organization like SIM, and others such as the Association of Information Technology Professionals, the Black Data Processing Associates and the Financial Executives Institute, still have anything special to offer, particularly when it comes to education? Indeed they do. I believe such organizations not only remain relevant and important, but offer something that cannot be done by any other kind of organization: They can serve as a professional home where CIOs and other IT executives can let down their guard, and therefore learn things they cannot learn anywhere else.

Conferences, workshops and research firms can help CIOs learn a specific skill, or drill down into a particular topic. But the kind of learning CIOs need most of all goes well beyond what one-shot events can provide. When their rough-and-tumble professional world turns especially bumpy, and the need to learn is most immediate and pressing, CIOs require a place to turn for advice from people who care about them and can help them. Because they provide repeated, regular get-togethers with peers, professional associations offer CIOs and IT executives a chance to form close, trusting relationships. There is no hidden sales agenda, as there inevitably is with meetings sponsored by vendors or research firms, and there's no need to hold back, as with industry associations where competitors gather. In such a setting, it's not an oxymoron to say CIOs can talk openly and confidentially about what they are going through. They can learn from peers who have no axes—either professional or personal—to grind and who have experienced what they're going through and know where the potholes are.

Equally important, professional associations provide the opportunity to make personal discoveries and to become inspired. One of the things I've come to know is that learning to be a leader is by no means the same thing as learning to manage. Learning to manage is well served by conventional lectures and training, because you are learning about something outside yourself. But learning to lead requires learning about what's inside you. Leadership development is not training, but a journey of personal discovery of one's values, natural gifts and personal weaknesses—that's why it's called development. It is a matter of learning how to hone those gifts, compensate for those weaknesses and figure out which mix of techniques best fit the situations you are likely to come across in your job.

Learning to lead isn't something that can be absorbed by sitting in a lecture hall and listening to leadership experts. Rather, the best place to learn what it takes to be an effective leader is in the kind of intimate and trusting setting that a membership association can provide. The openness that kind of environment engenders creates the greatest opportunity for CIOs to not only learn, but to find inspiration.

Non-profit associations also provide the best venue for addressing public issues affecting all CIOs. In the past, CIOs have been concerned with such issues as software licensing laws and Y2K. For the foreseeable future, CIOs also will be wrestling with the legalities of security and privacy issues: How do we keep cyberspace safe and secure? What is the proper balance between national security and the privacy of employee and customer data? What limits should be placed on the use of customer data? By marshalling a critical mass of credible IT executives from many industries, non-profit IT associations can be an effective way for CIOs to influence lawmakers and regulators and to heighten public awareness.

While most large companies are involved in lobbying to some degree, CIOs cannot rely on their own companies to take a public stand on these issues. I believe membership associations need to do more advocacy work in the future. Congress and the executive branch will consider new laws and regulations, not of all of them helpful, to bring order to what is still a young, even immature industry. CIOs must continue to speak with a single voice if they are to help that process along. SIM's suggestions in 2002 to President Bush's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, advising the creation of an independent organization that would set security standards for private corporations, is a good start, even though this suggestion was not included in the board's final report.

Lifelong learning, personal discovery, public advocacy—these needs may not be new, but they aren't ever going to go away. Indeed, they have only intensified as the CIO's role has grown more complex. I believe that only an independent association of IT executives can completely meet all three needs. That's why IT associations benefit the companies that pay their dues just as much as they benefit the IT executives who join and participate in them.

In a practical sense, these organizations should lower the risk that CIOs will fail in their difficult jobs. CIOs who are effective, knowledgeable leaders will simply perform better. They'll also last longer in their jobs, saving their employers the problems that arise when the CIO role becomes a revolving door. Companies may be tempted, when reducing expenses, to cut back support for such organizations, just as CIOs may be tempted to skip a meeting when they're busy. Don't. Professional associations are one of the most important investments of time or money companies and members can make.

Darwin A. John has held CIO-level positions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Scott Paper Co. He is currently an advisor to the director of the FBI and to Blackwell Consulting Services in Chicago.

Illustraion by: John Kascht