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Courageous Leadership Is the Great Differentiator

By Frank Petersmark  |  Posted 06-19-2013 Print

It takes courageous leadership to communicate true but unwanted information to an organization’s stakeholders, because it won’t be what they would like to hear.

The CIO then studies the consultants’ findings and recommendations and agrees with the need to move forward. This requires a myriad of activities, not the least of which is creating and promoting  the required budget, assessing the IT division’s capabilities and its chances of successfully accomplishing the changes, and beginning the thankless task of managing appropriate executive and customer expectations based on the answers uncovered in the previous tasks. 

This is precisely the point where courageous leadership is required, and it’s here where the CIO often missteps. When the consultants’ plans and estimates seem too good to be true, particularly when matched against the track record and capabilities of the IT division, it’s generally because they are. But rather than swallowing hard and fighting that battle, this CIO supports the consultant’s recommendations to his peers and the board and heads down what becomes an inexorable path toward overpromising and underdelivering, primarily because it’s politically expedient.

Just six months after the program’s start, it is clear to everyone that the initiative is behind schedule, as the IT division struggles with both its day-to-day responsibilities and its modernization tasks, and the internal customers resist the kind of cultural and process changes required to implement the new platforms. 

And the consultants? They, of course, recommend bringing on additional resources immediately, and reworking the program plan before the printer ink on the original plan is completely dry. The result—besides the obvious expense overruns and lost-opportunity costs in the marketplace—is reduced credibility and trust for the CIO, which, once lost, can be difficult to recover. 

Scenario No. Two

In the second scenario, all of the same events occur upfront in the process. But as the CIO reviews the options and recommendations, he or she realizes that the necessary modernization program, if done correctly, will be a long and arduous journey. It will take courageous leadership to communicate this reality to the stakeholders, because it won’t be what they want to hear. 

In this scenario, the savvy CIO carefully manages the expectations of the stakeholders by taking the time to honestly spell out the challenges, costs and timelines needed to properly execute the initiative. This is no small feat, and requires tact, sensitivity and a large dose of self-criticality. 

It’s important to explain to everyone involved that although the initiative can be successfully executed, it will be hard to do and that they must expect many setbacks and challenges. Effectively communicating this requires the CIO to provide a healthy dose of courageous leadership, but it’s part of the job of being a CIO and a member of the executive team.  

It’s likely that the CIO will have to take some short-term political heat for not delivering the new functionality as quickly as some would like, but over the long term this CIO has responsibly managed the expectations and resources of the organization to deliver what’s needed for the business to survive and thrive. Such an approach avoids the first scenario’s pitfalls of declining trust and credibility, and may well put this CIO on the road to future successes and career growth.

Managing Stakeholders’ Expectations

Although it’s certainly difficult, it’s much easier to communicate and manage expectations upfront than it is after the fact when critical milestones have been missed and costs have begun to spiral out of control. Done correctly, communicating and managing expectations builds credibility, trust and confidence at the executive level. The reality is that these are complex problems with no quick and easy solutions. As President John F. Kennedy once said, we choose to take up great challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It takes real work and sweat equity to produce and implement working IT systems that effectively serve the current needs of the organization and prepare it to meet future demands. 

Yes, it takes courageous leadership.

About the Author     

Formerly CIO at Amerisure, Frank Petersmark is CIO Advocate at X by 2, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based consulting company specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects. He can be reached at Fpetersmark@xby2.com.


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