The Hard Truths of IT Leadership

In their new book, The Adventures of an IT Leader, Harvard CIO gurus Robert D. Austin and Richard L. Nolan and Cutter Consortium consultant Shannon O’Donnell tell the story of Jim Barton, the new CIO of the struggling–and fictional–IVK Corp. Barton had no previous IT experience, and not long into his tenure, his novice status showed. In this excerpt, Barton, after a troubling meeting with his top IT deputies, consults IVK’s straight-shooting veteran technical services director, Bernie Ruben. What he gets is a valuable lesson that any new or inexperienced CIO could use.

Barton let the group disperse, then set off in the direction of Ruben’s office. He found Ruben listening to his voicemail. He waved Barton into his office, but finished listening to the current message before hanging up the telephone.

“Have a seat,” said Ruben, motioning to a chair stacked with paper. Barton moved the paper to an edge of the desk and sat down. The desk was covered with paper not very tidily arranged. “What can I do for you?” Ruben asked, flashing an accommodating, apparently sincere smile.

“You seem to be the one in this group willing to stand up to me,” said Barton, “so I was hoping you could help me understand a few things.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Barton thought for a minute, at first trying to formulate his words carefully to avoid the possibility of offending anyone, then finally jettisoning that idea and deciding to shoot straight: “I guess I don’t see why the IT department heads need to have their sidekicks present before they can have a productive discussion. I’ve done this lots of times in other organizations, and I’ve never run into this objection before.”

Ruben seemed to gather his thoughts before answering. “Well,” he said, “possibly we are simply wrong or don’t understand what you have in mind. But possibly, just possibly, IT is different.”

Barton snorted. “Everybody thinks they’re special. Is IT really different or do IT managers just think it’s different?”

“I don’t know,” answered Ruben. “But maybe I can suggest some of the reasons why it might be special, if, in fact, it is.”

“Love to hear it,” said Barton, sitting back in the chair and folding his hands on his lap to signal open-mindedness.

“You’ve been heading up Loan Operations for the past few years,” Ruben said. “I suspect that makes you the most expert person in the building about the intricate details of Loan Operations.”

Barton nodded.

“I suspect,” continued Ruben, “that you can do the job of anyone in Loan Operations as well, if not better than, they can do it. Or if not, you could probably get back to doing it that well within just a few minutes or hours of starting to do it again.”

“I suspect you’re right about that.”

“Well,” Ruben said, “none of us in IT can say that. Technology moves fast. Our people, many of them, are specialists. I was once a programmer, but the kind of programming I did bears little resemblance to what our programmers do now. I get the gist of it, but the details left me in the dust a long time ago.

“Moreover, some of our people are quite a bit more talented in their specialty than any of us managers ever were. These are people who, in terms of absolute intellectual horsepower, are probably a good bit smarter than you or me, but who have little or no interest in doing the jobs you and I do. They like the deep details, and they work with them expertly in a way that we, as managers, can’t see into very well. So we have to depend on them to tell us what’s going on in the details.

“Our ability to independently verify what they tell us is rather limited. We can tell the big things, like ‘Are we done?’ or ‘Does it work?’ at least to some degree, but most of the things that go on from day to day are not those big things. The interim stuff is a lot harder to observe and evaluate. These are the simple facts of our daily reality.”

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from The Adventures of an IT Leader by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan and Shannon O’Donnell. Copyright 2009 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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