Good CIOs Lead By Following

By Hank Marquis

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A 2006 study claims that 97% of IT workers say they experience job-related stress on a daily basis. Some 80% say they feel stressed before they even get to work, and around 25% admit to taking time off to deal with the stress.

These numbers place IT as the most stressful profession -– beating out doctors, firefighters, and many others.

The top reason listed is “lack of support, increasing pressure, interruptions and bullying behavior” from their direct managers. The report goes on to list other reasons including (in order):

  • workload
  • feeling undervalued
  • deadlines
  • type of work people have to do
  • having to take on other people’s work
  • lack of job satisfaction
  • lack of control over the working day
  • having to work long hours
  • frustration with the working environment
  • Stress is a leading cause of turnover, especially at the Service or Help Desk. It may be part of the reason there are fewer and fewer college graduates seeking a career in IT. Finally, stress-related illness is a leading cause of workplace injury and results in a staggering multibillion-dollar cost.

    According to the sufferers, it seems the reasons for this stress come directly from a lack of leadership from IT managers. If this is the case, and it appears to be, then it is within the power of IT management to improve productivity, reduce costs and enhance the working environment simply by becoming better managers and leaders.

    So, to improve IT service quality, improve customer satisfaction and reduce costs, perhaps it makes sense for CIOs to begin right at home -– with staff working conditions. It turns out that most IT job-related stress comes from a failure of those in IT management roles to understand that to lead, he or she has to follow. Effective leaders focus on relationships. They build a trusted team and then follow the team’s advice.

    Many CIOs and IT managers lack this understanding, and this causes stress, making IT the “worst job in the world.” Following are eight leadership traits that show CIOs and other IT leaders how to follow their constituents -– and in so doing increase project success rates, reduce costs, and improve IT service quality as he or she creates a better working place.

    1. Focus on the needs of others.

    Effective CIOs succeed by putting the needs of their team first. Real leaders try to provide service -– to their team, their customers, and anyone else they meet.

    By focusing on the needs of customers, and then trying to align their team in ways to meet those needs as well as the needs of the team, a leader gets the job done and develops followers. Customers want to work with a leader because a well-led team produces results. Your team wants to follow your lead because you take into account their needs and requirements.

    2. Leadership comes from your actions, not your title.

    Real leaders “walk the walk,” then they “talk the talk.” Some of the best IT leaders do not have CIO titles. Leadership in fact has nothing to do with title or pay-grade. Leaders lead because others want to follow them.

    Why would anyone want to follow a leader? Because leaders motivate their followers, give them purpose, support them, guide and mentor them, “take flak” to protect them, and make the workplace stimulating and rewarding.

    Next page: Where leaders get their best ideas...

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    3. Leadership makes you accountable, even if it's not your fault.

    A leader takes full responsibility for his or her mission, and with this comes accountability for failure and success.

    Leaders don’t blame their teams, or complain about unreasonable customer requirements. Leaders set expectations by focusing on the needs of others (Trait No. 2) and building consensus for attainable projects. When things go right, the leader thanks his or her team. If something goes wrong, a leader accepts full responsibility even if the cause of failure was someone else.

    4. Leadership is not a 9 to 5 activity.

    Leaders get out of their offices and engage with their constituents at all levels. Being a leader means focusing on the needs of others and helping others when they fail. This can require additional work, even after hours.

    Personal engagement also shows what is important to the CIO or leader. If the leader is not personally engaged in the activity in a visible way then the message to staff and others is clear – “I don’t really care.”

    5. Leadership requires trust from your followers.

    Trust does not come easily. You cannot buy, barter or steal trust. You have to earn trust.

    You build trust when you focus on the needs of others, motivate your team, satisfy your customers, take responsibility for success and failure, and engage with your team on a personal level. Trust will not come because you have an impressive title. Trust only comes from following the first four traits long enough to prove to your customers and teams that they can trust you. Your actions build trust.

    6. Leaders get their best ideas from their team.

    The best ideas are not going to come from the leader, but rather from the led. A good leader develops consensus for a project based on its relationships to customers, company and staff. Exactly how the project should unfold is often best left to the team to determine.

    Nothing so engages and commits a team to a leader than having the team actively help design the solution. Remember, no one knows the job better than the person who does it every day. Listen to and learn from your team, customers, and suppliers.

    Next Page: When to listen, when to talk...

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    7. Leadership thrives on diversity.

    A true story helps make the case for diversity of opinion. A major retailer tasked the IT group to report on conversion ratio -- that is, how many people entering a store purchase something. IT began brainstorming traditional IT solutions -– complicated, highly automated, and expensive.

    On a whim, an IT leader asked a non-IT person how they might determine how many shoppers that came into a store actually purchased something. The non-IT solution after just a few minutes of thought was to hire a couple of temporary workers and have them count the number of people entering the store, and those leaving with a shopping bag. The best ideas come from those who do not think as you do. Expand your circle of relationships; nurture those who think differently from you.

    8. Leadership comes from continuous communication.

    The ability to lead and embrace these traits requires communications skills. A leader does not need superior presentation skills, but he or she does need person-to-person verbal and non-verbal communications. This is counter-intuitive, but to present your ideas requires that you listen. To understand and accept the ideas of others requires that you talk. Many never develop these skills, but all leaders are masters of face-to-face communications.


    You can lead a team of equals, you can lead a team of superiors, and you can lead a team of subordinates. Leader is a title given to you by those whom you follow and serve. They see you as a leader when you pay attention to their needs. By listening to their needs and addressing their issues, you demonstrate leadership.

    Anyone can improve his or her leadership skills. Leadership comes from a desire to succeed and the realization that your success comes from what others do on your behalf of their own free will -– because they trust you and want to follow you. To be a leader you have to understand this indirect linkage.

    If you are an IT leader or manager and any of these suggestions rings true to you, then go take a course on leadership. Have your management style evaluated. Hire a consultant to explain the effect it has on your customers, company and team. You will probably be surprised at what you learn. If you are not a CIO yet, then this is your roadmap.

    Hank Marquis is director of IT Service Management Consulting at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., based in Boulder, Colo. Marquis has more than 25 years of hands-on experience in IT operations, management and IT governance and operational frameworks.