CIOs Letting the Business Lead IT Programs
The following is an excerpt from The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership, by Martha Heller.
Let the business Lead
As many CIOs have learned the hard way, large programs that are led entirely by IT are almost certain to fail. “When you start thinking about the big programs, programs that drive real change, you have to be sure those are led by the business,” says Leslie Jones, CIO of Motorola Solutions.
But getting the business to lead an IT project can be like getting my daughters to do their own laundry. I teach them to do it, I give them incentives to do it, I model the behavior, I even yell at them, but they won’t lift a finger, and the laundry that piles up at the door is my problem. (Note: at the time of this writing, we are piloting a new program to get my daughters to do their laundry involving threats of limiting their social
activity. I will provide an update in a future edition of The CIO Paradox.)
“One of the problems that I often see in IT organizations is that CIOs believe IT should lead from the front,” says Jones. “That may make you feel good when you talk with your peers at CIO conferences, but it rarely produces the business results that you had hoped for. The business is never going to embrace a program that involves significant change if they don’t feel in truth that it is business led. You’re much better off if you lead from the middle, put your business partners out front, and then back them up.”
So here we run into an interesting CIO Paradox: CIOs need to have egos that are big enough to initiate transformative projects but small enough to let someone else take the credit. Striking the balance between the chutzpah necessary to lead IT and the humility it takes to be successful at it is tough, and not everyone can do it.
Pick the right leader
“It is a common mistake among less experienced CIOs to believe that all business partners are interchangeable,” says Jones. “Left alone, the business will give you the mediocre but reliable person who has never rocked any boats, where taking them out of their current role and putting them on this program is not much of a loss.”
Your challenge, then, is to build on the trust you’ve established through consistent delivery and negotiate for the business leader who commands deep and profound respect among her peers.
Ralph Loura, CIO of The Clorox Company, learned the importance of choosing the right sponsor the hard way. “When I was in my first CIO role, we were delivering a huge CRM project and the VP of sales operations was the project sponsor. We built requirements for the project, and delivered it on time, on spec, and on budget. It was so perfect it made you weep. We built great functionality around opportunity management and the deals desk. And it was connected to the marketing channel. It was just beautiful. We rolled it out and in the first week we had something like a 2 percent adoption rate. The field refused to use the tool. We were devastated.”
The problem was that the VP of sales operations had sponsored the perfect solution to allow his sales team to spend two or three hours a day doing detailed forecasting and rolling the numbers up to him so that he had the information he needed. But the sales people had no interest in spending their time that way, so they did not use the tool. “We designed the perfect system to meet the requirements,” says Loura, “but it completely missed the mark.”
There are two lessons to be learned from Loura’s tale of woe:
- The choosers are not the users: “You always have to remember the difference between the users and the choosers.” The chooser, in this case, was the VP of sales operations. “We listened to him,” says Loura, “but we lost sight of the users. We never thought about how we were going to get the salespeople to be excited about the technology.”
- Talk to everyone: “Regardless of who your sponsor is, don’t take your advice in terms of platform or strategy or value creation from one source,” says Loura. “Make sure you have built broad alliances throughout the business. When it comes to delivering value, don’t pin your hopes and dreams to one executive leader. Make sure you’re checking with other functions to anticipate the downstream effects of what one leader wants.”
Back up your leader
Once you have the right business leader signed on to the project, someone who is respected by the business and plugged into the user base, you need to back her up. “You have to make absolutely certain that the leader succeeds, and that means taking on a lot of the back office, project management tactics necessary to get the program done,” says Leslie Jones. “Whenever anybody sends a note out to the general population, whenever anybody talks about the program, that leader should be up there as your spokesperson. You may be pulling the wires behind the scenes, but the program has to look like it’s totally business led.”
Accept the fact that you will not get all the credit
Personally, I love getting credit. I still want my CIO magazine editor to send me roses when I submit a new column each month, and I am slightly disappointed when my husband doesn’t congratulate me at the end of every day for completing a full day of work. I can only imagine how difficult it is for CIOs to achieve some fairly astounding feats like delivering a new suite of mobile applications (or even upgrading ERP!) and not be handed the keys to the city. Hence, the paradox: You drive the project from the backseat, a paradox unto itself, and when the project is a success, the business gets the credit. Ah, but that is the lot in life of the CIO. (You asked for the job.)