Managing Technically Oriented Executives

By John DeBenedette

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There's no doubt that executives with a technical orientation—those logical, analytical left brain folks—bring many positive attributes to the table, but they can also pose a unique challenge for a CIO.

A technology orientated management team will naturally want to challenge the CIO's ideas. Although this can be healthy, executives that second guess everything a CIO proposes make the job of managing IT resources more difficult for the CIO than it needs to be. Also, technically-oriented executives often underestimate the resources required for ad-hoc projects to be carried out, which can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Finding an antidote to this type of behavior, however, shouldn't be the sole responsibility of the CIO. Getting the most out of a technically-minded management team is the responsibility of the management team itself. Establishing a team-based corporate culture will arm most technically-oriented executive teams with the tools to achieve their corporate strategy and avoid conflict.

Fostering Teamwork

First, the management team has to be onboard to foster a company-wide culture of collaboration and teamwork. Next, from the top down, the leadership team should create organizational development programs, and establish protocols and values that support a corporate culture of high-performance teams.

Promoting this environment requires some key ingredients: Everyone's roles and responsibilities need to be clear to the entire team and measurable goals should be set. The working relationships between players need to be well defined to be effective. All the players on the team must be accountable at four levels—to their department, to each other, to the CEO, and to the entire company—if the organization is to achieve its goals. Not only should the level of information sharing and communication be high, but most importantly, soft skills and individual behaviors such as active listening, influencing, and conflict resolution should be core competencies.

Let's drill down further on some of the challenges CIO's face when surrounded by technically-oriented executives, and explore some of the tools available to overcome them:

Managing the solution-seeking technical executive: Keeping executives above the details is tough at times but necessary. Clear company goals and corporate strategy will help your technology-oriented executives stay focused on the bigger picture and not waste time diving into aspects of potential solutions that do not create value.

Reducing second guessing: The CIO really needs to have his or her metrics nailed own and be clear about the organization's corporate strategy. Make sure the portfolio of projects are clearly communicated to the team to gain buy-in and provide regular updates on performance against agreed-upon specifications. This reduces the need for executives to second guess IT solutions, or worse, start new projects that could undermine core deliverables.

Countering the "That's easy" suggestion: People with tech experience have a tendency to think that a given project isn't a big deal or will be quick to resolve. "All you have to do is x, y, z," they'll say. What they may not take into account are other factors, such as IT best-practices and standards that ensure any successful IT solution is created on a solid foundation. If this level of understanding is not fostered, a gap can easily form between executive team expectations and what the CIO can deliver for them. Using Budgets as a management tool: When the CIO ensures the budgeting process and tracking is tight, it is far easier to align management behind goals and fewer surprises are likely during the year. If one or more functions are not provided clear goals, managers have an opportunity to promote their own projects at the expense of the rest of the organization, creating functional silos that can destroy value and hamper reaching company-wide goals.

The CIO needs to bring tech-oriented executives into a transparent process where each department or team's budget is the subject of open discussion, reducing the potential for "silo" behavior.

Managing the executive's next great idea: The next “Big Thing" is always exciting to think about, but the CIO needs to establish a framework that can help the tech-oriented manager assess opportunities while sticking to long-term strategies that end up delivering to stakeholders on the business side.

After all, the business is relying on IT to meet their objectives. The CIO shouldn't fall into the trap of stealing from big, long-term projects to meet an untested new initiative with the notion that he or she will make it up in the end. When that happens three or four times the CIO will find themselves lagging significantly behind stated goals by the end of the year.

Resolving conflicts: And, of course, being part of a team of very smart people will inevitably lead to conflicts. By having established organizational norms, an operating tone and culture, the CIO can navigate conflicts and assist his or her techie executives to play by those same rules.

A team of technically-orientated executives can bring it's own special challenges for CIO's, but equipped with the right organizational strategy and personal strategy, the CIO can thwart potentially negative behavior and focus the team on the broader issues of organizational productivity and creating value for customers. This all adds up to building a high performance company.

As VP of IT for INTTRA, John DeBenedette is responsible for the technology that powers INTTRA's e-commerce industry platform and the work processes to create and sustain it including R&D, design, engineering and development of the product and channel solutions, as well as the core platforms for messaging, transaction processing, analytics, and web-services.