CIOs: Why Are you Justifying Your Work?

By Flux7 Labs
July 10, 2019

CIO Servant Leadership

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

As the CEO of a DevOps consulting organization, I speak regularly with CIOs and heads of IT about the projects they are working on — or would like to work on. Looking to learn from others, one of the questions I frequently hear is, “How do other CIOs justify their projects?” While you can Google and find a wide variety of answers to this question — from internal needs analysis to benefit statements — I have come to a slightly controversial conclusion.

CIOs shouldn’t be in a position where they end up needing to justify their efforts, and the reason why isn’t the brash conclusion you might think it is.

Servant Leadership

First coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay he published called “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership is an individual who focuses first and foremost on serving others. In a scrum environment, servant leaders manage their teams not by telling them what to do but by removing hurdles that might get in their way. I’d like to extend that approach to the IT department as a whole. The IT department should seek to serve the goals and objectives of the business and proactively remove impediments that could get in the way of success.

With a focus on serving the business and helping the business achieve its goals, the CIO should never be caught in a position where they need to justify their work.

Servant Leadership in Action

I made this realization one day as I was speaking with the CIO of a hospitality company. He was telling me about a recent 1-on-1 with his CEO, who asked him what projects the IT team wanted to work on. His answer was “nothing” — he didn’t want to work on anything other than what the business needed. He turned the table on the CEO and asked him what the business needs were and how he and his team could support those goals. The natural outcome of this conversation was a list of IT projects that actively supported the CEO’s goals — not the CIO needing to justify a list of desired projects.

Curious, I tested this idea as I was speaking with the IT group at a financial services company. They were excited about a project they were about to embark upon and I simply asked them to give me the business case for the project. I could see the light bulb turn on as they realized they needed someone from the business involved.  

These examples are a 180-degree difference from members of many organizations I speak with who have made technology investments with no clear connection to the business. Many times they don’t even know what the business needs. In these cases, IT spends many needless cycles selling the business on what they want to do and justifying the investment. Unfortunately, these projects end up as shelfware far too often, which is a loss of financial and human resources, not to mention lost opportunity costs.

If I’m Serving, I’m Not Leading (and I won’t be seen)

Those in the field may feel that the servant-leadership approach will not enable them to stand out, or worse — they might see it as exhibiting weakness. But there’s a sort of profound deference in being a servant who’s also a leader. According to an article by Harvard professor James Heskett, the servant-leadership approach is “akin to the pope’s annual washing and kissing of the feet as part of the Holy Thursday rite.”

Conversely, I like to think of Ed Stafford. In his book, Walking the Amazon, he describes his goal to be the first person to walk (not paddle) the length of the Amazon River. In doing so, he leads a small team through many obstacles. Despite torrential downpours, pit vipers, incessant biting insects and other challenges, he serves the team by cutting a path through the thickest of jungles. Similarly, a servant leader CIO and their team can actively clear the path for the business, alerting them to obstacles ahead. CIOs can serve by effectively navigating the best path forward.

In this analogy, the compass is of utmost value. The compass the CIO should constantly be checking as they lead the way should come from the market. They should ask questions like these that suss out where new opportunities lie and where new threats might be emerging:

• What is changing in the market?

• Are there new market entrants we should be aware of?

• Have new regulatory or compliance requirements emerged?

• Have our competitors announced a new offering?

• Have there been any changes in economic conditions?

• Are customer expectations changing and in what way?

When IT departments focus on the business and serving business goals, not only does the CIO no longer need to justify their projects, but they can stop having to come up with new projects to pursue. Working backward from a defined goal, the CIO and CEO can become partners in pursuit of business excellence.

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