Career Funhouse - Is Perception Reality?

Feb 10, 2011

Pam Baker

In response to a somewhat recent LinkedIn post asking for a single word or phrase to characterize people's leadership style 1500 LinkedIn professionals offered up a steady stream of "courageous, passionate, compassionate, sincerity, charisma" and other warm and fuzzy epithets.

Not surprisingly, there were no posts indicating harsher forms of rule. This, of course, begs the question of whether CIOs see themselves as they really are or as they'd rather be? Or, put another way, in the career funhouse of mirrors, how do you know which reflection is the one your bosses and underlings see?

"Perception is reality, so understand that your strengths, if overplayed, become weaknesses," said Barry Carter, a CIO for 10 years, at AirTran, Capital One, UnitedHealth and Alliance Data, prior to taking his current post as EVP of IT Services at Fujitsu America. "Seek feedback from myriad sources" regularly to guard against perception clashes, he advised.

The view from C Deck - The view from the C-seats is effected by how your fellow exec's see IT in general. "Companies treat IT as one of four archetypes: grinder, butler, business partner; or strategic enabler," explained Carter. "This treatment of IT depends on how the senior team views the IT organization."

In most cases, IT is trying to operate on a higher level than the business sees it. Many businesses have had such bad service from IT they just want them to keep the systems up and handle the basics requests while IT wants a seat at the table and to be allowed to innovate. "So we have a role/expectation conflict between the IT organization and the business," said Carter.

Moving from grinder to strategic enabler - Carter said grinder is the very lowest level. The first step up from grinder is to make offers and anticipate needs of the business like a butler. "If the basic daily functions are not being met by IT, then the business is not going to be willing to listen to the offer of the butler, regardless of how brilliant it is."

Clearly, most IT leaders want their organizations to co-create with the business, and this is where the business partner role comes into play. "The most fun I ever enjoyed as an IT partner was during a period of hyper-growth at Capital One," he said. "We were on the 'triple-double.' That was three years of 100 percent growth year over year."

Carter and his IT team overcame the basics and moved above grinder status by the end of the first year of his tenure. They advanced through butler and were a true business partner by the end of year two. "Year three was special because we were the strategic enabler driving automation to simplify the business and were working hand in hand to grow the business."

How to tell you're on your way or just on your way out - It is no secret that CIOs have often enjoyed a short shelf-life. Reports from leading executive search firms, including DHR International and DICE, say that CIOs remain in their jobs only from three to five years.

"The average tenure of a CIO is decreasing," said Todd Harris, director of Research at PI Worldwide, a provider of human capital analytics for organizations. "Unfortunately, they're more likely to be fired sooner when results aren't achieved fast enough."

Harris said there are several prevailing reasons for CIO "flame-out:"

  • Doesn't fit with the company's culture.
  • Was "over-promoted" into the role.
  • Inability to change and evolve.
  • Lack of self-awareness.
  • Doesn't deliver the necessary business results.
  • Delivers the necessary business results but in the wrong way behaviorally for example, is not seen as a "team player."

Even knowing this, it may be hard to spot signs that any of the above pertains to you. The first signs can be subtle. "When a CIO notices that there are high level meetings taking place and they were not invited and conversations become more business and less collegial, they should take notice," said Ann Spoor, CEO and founder of Executive Lattice.

Other signs that the bell tolls for thee are more easily noticed and tracked. Active, recurrent and prolonged inter-departmental battles are a sure threat to a CIO's career and so are project shortfalls. "Runaway projects, budget misses, lack of strong relationships with business partners, and recurring outages of critical systems are sure signs a CIO is standing on shaky ground," said Carter.

When to hold and when to fold - There is another threat to a CIO's career that has nothing to do with what the CIO actually does. "There are companies that don't believe IT is important," said Carl Gilchrist, leader of the Information Officer Practice in North America for international executive search firm Spencer Stuart. "In those situations, I recommend that you find a company that does believe that IT is important."

How can you tell if your company values IT in general and you in particular?

"If the company is making investments and IT isn't part of that process, then the CIO isn't being included in the decision process and is just not a factor," said Gilchrist.

If all signs point to EXIT what are your odds at finding greener pastures beyond the door?

"The rise in demand coupled with flat salaries bodes well for technology professionals who are eager to take advantage of new opportunities in the coming year," said Tom Silver, SVP of North America at Dice, a technology and engineering jobs board.

According to Dice's annual salary survey, 40% of tech professionals anticipate they could make more money by changing employers in 2011. However, the 24% who felt switching employers would not increase their pay found their assumption to be true -- they reaped, on average, nearly $13,000 more than those who anticipated finding a higher salary elsewhere.

The best news is that the overall technology environment is gradually improving. "In fact, job postings are up 30% year/year and tech professionals can find about 70,000 jobs on any given day on Dice," said Silver. "Across the U.S., every major metropolitan market is seeing growth, further increasing demand for highly-skilled tech talent."

Remember though, that changing jobs may not change the reflection your higher-ups and underlings perceive. Stay in touch with them regularly and check your image often.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).

Tags: IT management, CIO's job, IT culture, IT leaderhsip, CIO career,

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