How to overcome the trials and challenges of IT leadership

The shelf life of a typical CIO is shockingly short. In the US, many leaders last no longer than a couple of years. In Europe, it’s sometimes a little longer. However, some CEOs and CFOs from prominent global organisations have admitted to me that they have changed their CIO every year in recent times. Ouch! The sixty four thousand dollar question is, of course, why does this happen and, perhaps more importantly, why does it keep happening?

In my new book Staying the Course as a CIO: How to overcome the trials and challenges of IT Leadership, I have put together my best learnings from thirty years in IT. Also, in discussions with colleagues who have impressive track records as world-class CIOs, we realised that the same issues were affecting all of us. And what’s more these problems cropped up again and again. Despite this, many of these leaders have flourished. So just what did they do and what can we share with you?

>See also: The 2015 CIO agenda

First, we look at your stakeholders. How do you balance the demand for an infinite number of small-scale projects from your user-community while your Board is expecting you to lead large-scale transformational change across the enterprise? Then we ask ‘why do large projects go wrong so often?’ How can you spot the peaches and discard the lemons to ensure that your precious development resource is doing the right things for your organisation?

There are also the usual obstacles that an IT leader must surmount. Software is of course a necessary, useful and powerful force. But in inexperienced management hands it can also be one of the most damaging aspects of IT. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can certainly smell it when it goes wrong. Identifying how software can cause problems means that you can start to manage and control your environment more effectively. With the benefit of input from many colleagues and even a few historical characters, we look at the whole approach you can take to managing software, whether it is packaged solutions or vast bespoke coding adventures.

Few departments operate solely with in-house teams. Outsourcing and consultancy both play an increasingly important role in modern IT functions. There is plenty to go wrong here. Many organisations can find themselves in a trench-warfare situation very quickly once the euphoria of the post-contract honeymoon period has worn off. The sales team who clinched the deal may be sunning themselves in Hawaii, but those left to pick up the pieces on both client and vendor sides have a great deal of work to do.

And let’s not forget consultants. Domain experts and bright people from reputable consulting houses have a lot to add to your business when used properly. But if you get it wrong, you can end up spending a lot of money just to receive a few vague PowerPoint slides which, with the passing of a few short months, can become as undecipherable as an Enigma machine.

Many IT leaders attempt to struggle through without any coherent vision or strategy. Indeed, in the teeth of insatiable user demand, many feel that ‘aimless is safest’. But it is not. The very best CIOs are not only highly respected members of their executive teams, but they are especially close to their C-level colleagues.

>See also: The trends CIOs should embrace

A top-class CIO can probably do more than almost any other executive when it comes to driving the strategic agenda of a company or organisation. More so in the increasingly digital days we live in.

Different organisations have different priorities, so it is important not to take a ‘one size fits none’ approach, or attempt a doomed ‘everyone gets everything’ strategy. Once your goals are in place, we then look at how you can keep score. Where should you spend your budget? How much should you reserve for development work versus operational priorities? What types of project does your enterprise need? Where can you make the biggest (positive!) impact?

Will it be problems with dislocated stakeholders, ‘black death’ pathogenic projects or, seriously shaky software that will shorten your executive career? Or perhaps it might be obsessive outsourcing, chronic consultancy or bleeding budgets that will prevent you achieving your destiny.

Whichever it is, I hope that you’ll be able to employ useful strategies to get the best out of IT for your organisation – whilst also extending your own shelf-life as a CIO.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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