Courageous Leadership Is the Great Differentiator

By Frank Petersmark  |  Posted 06-19-2013

Courageous Leadership Is the Great Differentiator

By Frank Petersmark

The life of a CIO is a precarious one at best, but are CIOs contributing to their own insecurity? In some cases the answer is an emphatic yes. 

First, the good news. 

The U.S. economy is slowly but surely emerging from several years of soft pricing, diminishing profitability and expense containment. Enthusiasm and budgets for innovations, upgrades and efficiencies are on the rise. Large-scale IT initiatives that have sat on the shelf for the past two or three years are being re-examined and readied for activation.  

And now the not-so-good news. 

While the overall picture may generally bode well for CIOs, these trends increase the uncertainty and put a lot of pressure on CIOs to essentially make up for lost time. CIOs today are mightily tempted to make big promises that they may not be able to keep.  

The problem is that the industry’s appetite for new technology has increased, but the fundamentals required to successfully execute and implement enterprise-scale IT initiatives have not decreased, and may have actually increased in difficulty over the past few years. 

The Reality of IT Initiatives

For starters, vendor-provided systems have made longed-for functionality and configurability advances over the past several years, but many of these systems pose massive integration challenges. The types of skills required to accomplish these integrations are in short supply in most IT departments, and many of the newer vendors in the space have wisely stayed away from offering integration or even implementation services and instead are focusing on advancing their product’s capabilities. That leaves many companies at the mercy of third-party integrators whose business models don’t necessarily align with the effective and efficient implementation of these systems. 

Another reason that implementing pent-up IT initiatives may prove more difficult is a fairly simple one, but nevertheless true: Many companies have not done it in a while. Skilled program management is no different from other skills in one important sense: Practice makes perfect and, by extension, lack of practice is a problem. Many IT divisions have operated in “maintenance mode” during the last few years, and may therefore be out of practice when it comes to the high-pressure stakes of implementing complex software platforms. In truth, many companies had struggled with this before the economic lull, and those struggles have not been magically remedied now that companies are ready to pick up speed.  

All of these elements contribute to the current state of anxiety for CIOs. While the temptation is to race full-speed ahead, such an approach could lead to the career-damaging spiral of overpromising and underdelivering. 

That’s why it is now more important than ever for CIOs to take a deep breath and focus on one critical element: courageous leadership. What does that mean in the context of a CIO’s job? Simply put, it’s the courage to explain what is and is not possible, how long it will really take, how much it will really cost, and what is really required in terms of resources and commitment.   

These things, however, are easy to say and very difficult to do. Let’s consider two hypothetical paths for CIOs and see how they play out. In both scenarios, a CIO realizes that the organization’s core systems are antiquated, that internal and external customers are unhappy with the system’s functionality, and that competitors seem to be moving ahead of them from both a technological and customer-experience perspective.    

Scenario No. 1

In the first scenario, the CIO hires a consulting company to perform a business-requirements gap analysis, provide an IT roadmap update that will lead to strategic business objectives and review potential options for modernization. 

Courageous Leadership Is the Great Differentiator

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