By Frank Petersmark
In the film The Right Stuff, the Mercury 7 astronauts are being feted by U.S. Vice President Lyndon Johnson after he had successfully lobbied Congress to put the fledgling NASA in his home state of Texas. All of the Mercury astronauts were culled from the ranks of test pilots—men who flew in experimental aircraft not knowing whether or not they’d return to terra firma safely.
While almost all of the test pilots clamored to become astronauts, most did so out of a sense of duty, but some did so for the accompanying glory. There was one test pilot, however, who wanted nothing to do with the space race. His name was Chuck Yeager.
In this scene, all of the astronauts except one, Gordon Cooper, have completed missions to near-earth orbit or outer space. Thanks to the media, all of the astronauts are viewed as the epitome of American heroism and valor, but Cooper knows better. With the media gathered around him, he’s asked the question, “Who was the best pilot you ever saw?” For a split second, Cooper talks about Yeager, but as the media physically presses in on him, he reverts to form: “Who was the best pilot I ever saw? Well, uh, you’re lookin’ at him.”
This scene provides an instructive analogy for what it takes to be a CIO in 2014 and beyond. In the context of the movie, having the right stuff means the ability to try something—like Chuck Yeager did when he broke the speed of sound in 1947—even though the outcome is by no means certain. It could turn out quite well or rather poorly, but becoming comfortable with the not-knowing aspect was the key to possessing the right stuff.
Being a CIO in 2014 and beyond carries the same types of risks and comfort challenges, albeit stopping short of actually losing one’s life. CIOs have to find that elusive balance between risk and reward, including the ability to fail and rebound, because without it, it is a struggle to be a successful CIO. Savvy CIOs must also have a solid handle on their organization’s tolerance for risk and possible failures. Miscalculating that tolerance has been the downfall of many a CIO. And, most important, all of this has to happen within a prescribed context, so that the risk-reward calculation makes sense to all of the vested parties.
In The Right Stuff, breaking the speed of sound and sending a man into space were all within the prescribed context of winning the Cold War. For CIOs, taking necessary risks should always be couched in the context of enhancing or achieving the organization’s strategic and operational goals and objectives. That way when some initiatives fail to produce the desired results, people in the organization understand, and perhaps even appreciate, the reasons the initiative was attempted. However, if the risks are perceived as self-serving for the CIO, too parochial, or as something that won’t benefit important goals of the organization, well, that’s definitely not having the right stuff.
So how does a CIO know if he or she has the right stuff?
One way to figure that out is to take the IT initiatives priority list and see how many direct lines can be drawn between each one of those IT initiatives and one or more organizational strategic or operational directive. If you don’t have a high number of straight-line relationships, you don’t have enough of the right stuff.
Another way: ask the CEO and COO to name the must-have initiatives that IT is working on. If they can’t name any, that’s another indication that you don’t have enough of the right stuff.
Finally, if your business colleagues are not requesting your thoughts about this or that new technology, you probably don’t have enough of the right stuff.
If you don’t have enough of the right stuff right now, don’t despair. It might take just a little attitude readjustment. As flight engineer Jack Ridley said to Chuck Yeager before he broke the speed of sound for the first time, “Put the spurs to her, Chuck.” That’s what all CIOs need to think about—and do.
About the Author
Frank Petersmark is the CIO advocate at X by 2, a technology consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich., that specializes in IT transformation projects for the insurance and healthcare industries. Formerly CIO and vice president of information technology at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Company, Petersmark has more 30 years’ experience as an IT professional and executive. He can be reached at fpetersmark@XBY2.com.
To read his previous CIO Insight article, “Translating IT Speak Into Business Speak,” click here.