The Rookie CIO

One of the biggest challenges for new CIOs is making sense of what the job actually entails. There’s no defined career track for IT leaders, and there are endless numbers of advisers and resources they can tap to help them along the way. Navigating these obstacles is imperative for all CIOs, and even more so in these tough economic times.

Enter Jim Barton, the new CIO of IVK Corp., to show how he grew into the role with no prior IT management experience. Both Barton and IVK are fictional creations, the work of Robert D. Austin, chair of Harvard Business School’s CIO executive program; Richard L. Nolan, his predecessor, emeritus professor at Harvard and professor at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business; and Shannon O’Donnell, a consultant with the Cutter Consortium.

Their forthcoming book, The Adventures of an IT Leader (Harvard Business Press, April 2009), explores what it takes for IT chiefs to make it through the transition to the executive suite. Told as Barton’s story, The Adventures of an IT Leader delves into many of the pressing issues CIOs face, including project strategy, crisis management, work force retention and vendor negotiation.

Austin and Nolan spoke with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson ahead of the book’s release, discussing their unique approach to penning the tale, as well as what CIOs can learn from Jim Barton’s triumphs and travails. This is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: In thinking about his new role, Barton dwells on this statement: “IT management is about management.” Are more CIOs zeroing in on the idea that more general management is needed in IT?

Richard Nolan: The rhetoric is there, clearly. The thing that’s very dangerous is for CIOs to become like Catholic converts: They try to go right to general management without understanding the roots of where they come from. That’s when it becomes more rhetoric than reality.

The good CIOs maintain the advantages and assets of their technical understanding and learn how to bridge that and work with it with the senior management team.

Robert Austin: If your general management colleagues aren’t reaching across the abyss, you have two choices: You can live in your own world and hope for the best, or you can expand your thinking, inclinations and activities to reach across.

Early in the book, Jim Barton gets a valuable piece of advice: “You’ve got to know what you don’t know.” Why is it so important for CIOs to recognize their own shortcomings?

Nolan: Good general managers know what they don’t know. They build skills to create an environment around them–including people they trust, outside sources, self-education–to ensure they don’t make huge mistakes by not appreciating aspects of other functional areas. This is truly a unique management capability.

Just as a CEO can come from a number of functional backgrounds, in IT, the general management skills are critically important, but so is the ability to understand what’s unique to IT. Whoever is in that position needs to do [his or her] homework, and Jim Barton is exemplary in accomplishing that requirement.

Austin: At one point in the book, Barton’s predecessor, Bill Davies, lectures him on knowing everything before he goes to see the CEO. Davies has a different set of inclinations. He’s not particularly interested in having a conversation with the CEO.

There’s that notion out there about what it takes to be a manager–that you’re somebody who brings solutions, not questions. That’s outmoded. It’s part of knowing what you don’t know. If you’re a leader and you don’t want others to know what you don’t know, you’re going to dig yourself a hole.

Nolan: When I was running a consulting firm [Nolan Norton & Co.], we would provide the IT background and training for really smart MBAs and others we hired into the firm. They would go to organizations and find that the CEOs and senior management were listening to them.

Because of that, they made a giant leap in imagination: They would wander over and give advice on marketing or whatever areas they didn’t have the background for. They lost all credibility with the senior management team. The message they sent was that they really didn’t know what they didn’t know. That’s dangerous.

That advice came from “The Kid,” one of Barton’s many advisers. How many advisers, inside and out of the company, should new CIOs consult?

Nolan: One of the essences of what good general managers do is build the skill of working with others, allowing them to engage in ways that help them discover and learn the critical aspects of what they don’t know. It involves the creation of trust that this is reliable, that I can ask questions, etc. That’s a critical skill of CIOs, as well as any other general manager.

Austin: But there’s a flip side: Not all of Barton’s advisers gave him consistent advice. Another part of the general manager’s job is figuring out which advice to take. And Barton didn’t always choose the right direction. For instance, he didn’t take his girlfriend’s advice, even in instances where he probably should have.

What lessons can IT executives learn from Jim Barton about navigating through the recession?

Austin: One of the messages is that Barton gets put on his back foot at one point. He finds himself, as he puts it, becoming Davies–the situation around him is turning him into a reactive creature. There’s one chapter where he tries to pull himself back to a proactive mode, and then something goes wrong and he’s forced to start firefighting again.

I’ve learned from Dick [Nolan] over the years that when you’re in a situation where you’re potentially on your back foot, set an agenda and let others respond to your agenda. As long as you’re constructive, it’s hard for anyone to say you’re not contributing.

Nolan: Rob [Austin] and I have been discussing how to use the IVK case in this summer’s Harvard CIO course. What would Davies do in this environment? We’ve talked about five things CIOs need to do:

1. Retain top talent: You can’t afford to lose it at this point.

2. Anticipate security threats: They’re going up like crazy now.

3. Think of IT more strategically: This is a perfect time to do that.

4. Look for cost savings: It’s not typically attacked as aggressively as it should be.

5. Weigh the benefits of renegotiating contracts and outsourcing IT: Everything is being renegotiated in this environment.

I asked Rob this question last year, when you finished the first draft: Is Jim Barton the CIO of the future?

Nolan: This is the future CIO, in my sense. The CIO function has come up very rapidly in the organization. You see this pattern over and over again in organizations where the career path involves studying in a functional area, where people master the management of a major functional area and then there’s this break to the next level–the C level.

I see this happening in the IT area. Just like any other area, the prerequisite is to understand basic management; the next level is to understand the general management frameworks that are so important.

What else does the CIO of the future need to do?

Austin: It’s always a good strategy to say something splashy and provocative. Some say the end of the CIO is in sight, that it’s going to separate into a guy who manages the plumbing and a general manager-type over him, or that the CFO will oversee IT with the plumber underneath him.

The danger to the CIO function is its historic orientation to the cost side of the income statement. So many IT departments see themselves in terms of efficiencies and cost reduction, but increasingly there’s a role to be played on the revenue side of the income statement–to increase profits not only by reducing costs but by expanding revenues.

It’s a hard thing to talk about in the middle of a financial crisis. But before that set in, what was endangering the CIO more than the idea of the CFO doing the job was the idea that marketing or product development was going to pick up the revenue side of IT. That happens in a lot of companies: A lot of exciting IT applications that are very novel and are creating value in new ways happen in the product development shop, not the IT shop.

Nolan: There’s a real message to CIOs that we dis-covered rather dramatically in our last Harvard summer program: There’s no reason why the technology-based CIO cannot be the future CIO with a general management function. But it’s very clear they have to shed their heavy technology orientation and become a general manager, become a peer. What comes with that is mastering these general management skills and the language of general managers.

Early in the book, there’s a critical dialogue that Jim Barton has when he reads in his background study that IT touches every part of the business. It’s not that IT executives know every part of the business, but as more organizations started recognizing that, they started recruiting top people into the IT organization to start and then spit them out into other functional areas after two or three years. They found that was a very effective way of getting entry-level people up to speed on how the organization operates.

That still exists today, and that’s one of the reasons why we see the Jim Bartons of the world being drawn into that function on the path to upper-level jobs.

The title changed from the original You Won’t Last a Year. Is there a reason why “CIO” isn’t in the new title?

Nolan: I don’t think so. It reminds me of when I first came to Harvard in the mid-’70s, and I was doing a number of Harvard Business Review articles. I was titling one “The MIS Leader of the Future,” and the editors called it “The Plight of the EDP Manager.” I said, “Look, that’s crazy–why are you calling it that?” They said, “Do you want to have a battle of vocabulary, or do you want to communicate to what the pros are calling it right now?” So I think there’s some of that here.

Austin: We did like the term “leader” in the title. One of the themes of the book is that you’re not just a techie–you have to be a leader. If IT management deserves status equal to marketing management or financial management, there has to be a coherent notion of a management subject here, not just a bunch of collective technologies.

That’s a strong idea. There is this coherent set of management issues that an IT leader needs to oversee. Certainly they’re not all technical; arguably they’re not all managerial. To a great extent, they extend into leadership behaviors.

When the stuff hits the fan in chapters 10 and 11 [when Barton faces a massive systems outage and how his team opts to rectify it, respectively], it’s more than just management that has to go on there.

Nolan: IT leadership has shifted from a spectator sport for senior executives to a participatory sport. So, at that level, in order to have effective IT, there has to be leadership at the C level. There has to be leadership that’s shared throughout the entire organization, as opposed to what went on in the past, where senior managers sat back and didn’t get involved with the actual leadership.

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