As CIO you hold great power, though this power also brings a Kryptonite-like weakness with it. You are responsible for sustaining the information flows of an organization. You also carry the curse of not being taken seriously. It’s like being Captain America and the Invisible Man at the same time.
It’s seems lonely and frustrating, but if you step outside of your Arctic stronghold/ underwater lair/ server room and take a look around you’ll notice you are not the only executive in the same predicament.
Your challenge is to assemble a team and lead them into a powerful and effective alliance.
The need to work across the C-suite
As a leader you see the benefits when your team collaborates with others from across the organization. The synthesis that results from different professional skills, diverse opinions and complementary thinking styles is well documented. But how often do you do this at the C-level?
Collaboration across the C-level is rare outside of monthly executive meetings. Often what stops you is an over-full schedule, your own conviction, or the vulnerability you feel in reaching out to your peers with the opportunity to join forces.
There are three situations that you risk by not taking the initiative:
- You will continue to operate in isolation. Your ability to influence both your peers and the strategic direction of the company will diminish. You can be picked off, ignored and relegated to utility-like operational responsibilities.
- Your growth and career progression will be stalled. As a CIO your value is no longer in what you know or what you can do. It is in how you lead. You need to lead with ideas, fostering innovation and challenge your peers to think about what could be. Without this you are doomed, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, to the insanity of continuing do the same things over and over again while expecting different results.
- Your team will be relegated to doing instead of thinking. Good or bad, your team will follow your lead and display the same behaviors as you. If you fail to take the initiative then they may also become wary of stepping outside of their comfort zone to engage in open and constructive conversations with their peers in other functions. They will start to refer to “the business” in the third person. If that is how they are referring to the rest of the company then you can only imagine how the rest of the company is referring to them, and to you.
The good news is that you are not alone. There is a opportunity for you to gather a group of your peers and creatively join forces. A League of Corporate Superheros, if you will.
Learn from your peers
Begin by approaching individuals on their terms. Do your research, watch their body language in meetings to see what is frustrating them, observe what topics they are continuously trying to get onto the agenda, and learn to appreciate their strengths.
As an example, consider the following positions in your organization and how their peers may view them:
- Head of Human Resources. Strategic and transformational leader, aligning the company’s operating model with future need? Or custodian of payroll, performance and policy?
- Shared Services Director. Champion of process and service excellence? Or a lowest-cost commodity that can be outsourced with a snap of the fingers?
- General Counsel. Guiding hand and the protecting counsel that your organization needs in your commercial and regulatory environment? Or a layer of bureaucracy that holds up decisions and adds red tape to deals and agreements?
Explore the skills and insight that each of these leaders brings to the table. These are not necessarily their functional strengths. Rather, they are the intrinsic values and viewpoints that, by themselves, are often lost against the backdrop of everyday matters such as sales, operations and finance.
Consider the following mix:
- The holistic understanding of people, values and capability from Human Resources;
- The energy, teamwork and strong customer engagement culture from Shared Services;
- The pragmatic, informed and far reaching insight of Legal;
- The resilience, vision and adaptability of Information Services.
When combined these skills create a powerful analytical and problem solving capability that is far more effective than if they were to be employed individually.
Take the initiative
Be on the front foot. Work with your peers. Find time to explore the capabilities that you each bring by discussing and agreeing on the common dilemmas and obstacles you face.
Pick a pressing problem facing your organization, one that provides you with an effective and visible vehicle to engage with your C-level peers.
Workshop the problem as a team and agree on the target outcome. Map the journey ahead, including the risks and opportunities you might encounter. It is at this stage where you will benefit from the diverse perspectives and experience of your League of Corporate Superheros.
The result will be a sound plan with a number of your senior peers united and invested in both the approach and the outcome.
Be clear and consistent as a team
The way in which you engage your remaining C-level colleagues will depend on the culture of your organization. It is safe to assume that nobody (especially the CEO) enjoys being ambushed. Your best stratagem is to divide and conquer.
Have your League engage with each of the C-level and the CEO individually. Ensure the messaging is consistent and focused on the target outcome. Share the challenges and additional insights that come back from those engagements – they will be vital in showing that the individuals have been listened to and their opinions valued.
Start conservatively and adapt your style and approach, once more using your League peers to shape and refine this based on their own viewpoints. The success of the process will be a consequence of two vital actions: your partnering behaviors, and the effort put in to give all parties the opportunity to voice their opinion and become invested in the process.
Leadership is something you earn
By taking the initiative to bring together an otherwise marginalized group of senior leaders you will have gathered a formidable influencing force around you. Furthermore, you will have set the scene for your own team as to what a CIO – their leader – is capable of achieving.
As the sun sinks and the smoke clears over the company battlefield, you might feel more human that super-human, but that’s OK. By forming a powerful alliance you will have overcome the odds and live to fight another day. And who knows – maybe you can use a structured lease on your Batmobile flee.
Image source: Michael Saechang