Four Courageous Conversations For Every IT Leader

IT leaders must be prepared to have difficult conversations with their bosses, with their customers, with their teams and with themselves.

business meeting

The hard truth is that the vast majority of the work that today's IT organization performs does not provide any form of business value that is truly strategic or differentiating. It may be important and even crucial to day-to-day business operations, but it is also something that can often be provided just as easily by outside organizations. As long as those services are not truly strategic, the moment they can be acquired less expensively than the internal organization can provide them, a conflict will exist. Fear will lead IT professionals to try to "protect their turf" and attempt to justify why they must continue providing this service. It does nothing but erode the trust with our customers and delay the inevitable.

Just as we need to be courageous in our conversations with our customers about what services provide meaningful business value, we need to have the same conversation with members of our team. As an IT leader, you must be brutally honest with yourself and your team. Of all of the things you do on a daily basis, which of them provide true strategic value to the organization? The real answer is that there are probably a large number of activities that you presently perform that provide very little strategic value. These are the things that you must simply stop doing. You must put the well-being of the organization above your fears and find the most cost-effective manner in which you can provide those services—even though it is likely to be from an outside resource.

That takes courage. It will leave a large part of your team feeling very vulnerable. It may result in a smaller budget and footprint for your organization. It could even result in a staff reduction as you identify that you no longer need some purely technical resources. But it is the right conversation to have. It is the only conversation that will ensure your continued relevance. And it is what will be required to take you to a truly strategic level.

Conversation #4: With Yourself

“Am I ready to go the distance?”

Despite all of the angst that may have been generated by the first three courageous conversations, the toughest, most courageous conversation that you will need to have is with yourself. When I was playing the role of the CIO during the hypothetical in Australia, I was asked a question about what I would do given the circumstances. My answer was, "Keep my resume updated." It got a good laugh, but it wasn't much of a joke. There is a reason that the tenure of CIOs is relatively low compared to other executive roles. It can be a thankless job. Choosing to have these kinds of courageous conversations will not make it easier.

If you elect to follow my advice, you must be prepared for the fact that the resistance will be forceful and unrelenting. As an industry, we suffer from a type of selective amnesia. We seem to forget (or just willfully ignore) the cautionary tales of organizations that failed to have these kinds of courageous conversations—and suffered the dire consequences. Yet, the halls of IT leadership are swarming with IT executives who continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Having the kinds of courageous conversations that I am suggesting will certainly set you apart. But that may not be a good thing. The conversations will likely set you apart as someone who may be considered a "contrarian" or a "naysayer." Being courageous will demand that you tell the proverbial emperor that he has no clothes on. It will not win you any popularity contests. So the final, and perhaps most important, conversation you must have is with yourself. You must ask yourself if you are willing to go the distance—to have these conversations, to stick with them and to live with the consequences.

This article was originally published on 09-05-2013
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