Nautilus Building, ul. Nowogrodzka 11
Phone: +48 22 529 02 70
Brinley: José, Having worked with a huge number of senior IT professionals, we know that leadership is a big issue for them. And practical, on the ground experience of successful IT leaders like you, is so valuable in this work. Yet in all that time I have seen only a handful of books written by real IT executives. What made you want to write your book?
José: I always thought I was lucky to have been born in Brazil, but the real value of my ancestry became apparent only after I was appointed CIO of General Motors Europe.
Such a large multinational, multicultural team is bound to have a lot of disparity and disputes. It helped that I was considered a “foreigner” by everyone, which provided me with a unique perspective and the skills required to resolve many of these disputes and to run a major IT shop in the global economy.
After I reflected on my experience it seemed a good time to share the insights I had gained over four decades.
Brinley: It’s odd you should say that about being seen as “foreign” and therefore neutral in some way; I’ve heard others say similar things over the years about the role of CIO itself. It touches every place in the business and yet the CIO has somehow remained neutral and risen above the politics of large organisations. I’m not sure how tenable it will be to maintain this neutral stance going forward. How do you see the future of CIOs?
José: When I began my career I never dreamed that IT would evolve into the indispensable engine of a global economy. And today, even as this global economy falters and splutters, IT is more significant than ever. This puts a heavy burden on the shoulders of CIOs.
Think about it: thirty years ago nobody seriously believed that IT would be called upon to lead enormous transformational efforts affecting every aspect of a global enterprise. Today, in addition to making sure that IT runs smoothly, the CIO is expected to provide strategic leadership and high-level guidance. That’s a big difference.
And this is just the beginning of a new era in which some form of digital intelligence will be built into practically every product you can imagine. CIOs need to think seriously about redefining their roles. I wrote my book to launch a meaningful conversation about the role of the CIO going forward.
Brinley: Well, let’s come onto your views on modern IT leadership. One of the most challenging ideas in your book, is your entreaty to CIOs to view themselves and to operate as the CEOs of IT. Can you expand on that for us?
José: Hard times present excruciating business challenges but they also bestow incredible opportunities for the CIO to build the infrastructures required for future growth.
One of the most important lessons I learned as a CIO was to make sure that everyone knew I was accountable and the leader o IT. When the opportunity presents itself CIOs must step up and take on more responsibility. You will get the blame anyway if anything goes wrong so don’t be afraid to define your role more broadly and don’t hesitate to be accountable. Act like a leader and show your pride.
Brinley: I’m guessing this is where you say that any IT leader must choose between becoming a hero or a scapegoat.
José: Yes, or a sacrificial lamb, that is even more evocative.
Brinley: Heroes appear in tough times, so I hope we can see more heroic behaviour from today’s and tomorrow’s IT leaders. Tell us what they have to do.
José: In very tough times like those we are currently experiencing IT leaders must cut expenses deeply, but they should use cost reduction as a strategy to fund development and revamp systems and infrastructure. These actions further reduce cost and create more opportunites to make IT better and provide seed money for growing the business.
They must also keep enough money in the budget for retaining and developing their top performers. They will get you through the hard times.
Brinley: In your book you say quite a lot about building a great team. Is it really the most important thing for a CIO to be worrying about in these extraordinary times?
José: As the CEO of IT or simply as the manager of an indispensable organisation within a larger business, some of your primary responsibilities are attracting, nurturing, promoting, motivating and preserving talent.
I’d go further: your responsibilities to manage talent extend well beyond your own company boundaries to include your vendors, consultants, and all the various outsourcers you depend upon.
A deep pool of talent is a great asset and your best hedge in a bad economy.
Brinley: And in a downturn there is some great talent available for hire if you can free yourself up from headcount restrictions and recruitment bans.
José: CIOs must establish their own goals for IT and not wait for someone else to tell them what to do. In a challenging economy it’s actually easier to set goals and accomplish them than it is in periods of rapid growth. Since all areas of the business are in cost-cutting mode it’s the perfect time to simplify your IT landscape by eliminating legacy systems and redundant components.
Brinley: What if the business is reluctant to do this?
José: IT owns the systems, so there’s no excuse for not acting swiftly when the opportunity arises to ditch a costly and inefficient legacy system and revamp or replace it with a more cost effective alternative.
Brinley: But where do you get the money to do this when everyone is cutting costs?
José: Even in the best of times you cannot raise capital for a business unless you have a strategic plan. Think of corporate IT as a business and think of your company’s C-suite as a group of venture capitalists. Write out a strategy for IT, share it with them and use it as a template for everything you do.
Brinley: Okay, you are setting out some big challenges here. Not only are you recommending that CIOs set themselves up as some kind of CEO or Czar of IT, but they are now competing with others in the C-suite for scarce investment funds. Do they have to become salesmen as well?
José: Only in the sense that they have a vision for how the business could be and they will argue as persuasively as possible to be allowed to deliver that vision. Isn’t that what the best CEOs do? Aren’t they really the top sales people?
Brinley: I’m very sympathetic to what you are arguing for but I’m also anticipating how uncomfortable many CIOs would be in trying to execute on your vision.
José: Look, the business values results. Once you understand what results the business needs, you must get your ideas heard on how IT can best help to deliver them. If you cannot deliver results the business has no need for you. Provided you remember to work with your business colleagues not for them.
Brinley: So you are advocating a full business partnership rather than a service relationship.
José: Of course, a partnership of equals. IT is a product like any other product. It cannot speak for itself so the CIO must manage and market the IT brand. You must put a face on IT, you must explain what your IT does and how it creates value. In other words you must sell it.
Brinley: But you’re not suggesting that your business colleagues could buy their IT services anywhere else are you?
José: Absolutely not! Marketing a complicated product like IT is harder than it looks. To succeed you must build and manage your relationships up, down and sideways across the enterprise and beyond its traditional boundaries. You need cooperation from an extremely wide range of participants, in and out of the organisation, to get the most from your IT systems.
Most important, you need to manage your suppliers. There is no question that anywhere else in the business can do this as well as you can in IT. You must hold all your vendors accountable. Manage them as though they are part of your team and ensure your contracts reflect your business needs. Never be afraid to revisit them and renegotiate if the deal isn’t working.
Brinley: So in this era of cloud, SaaS and consumerization, what’s your stance on what we often call “shadow IT”? Would you allow your fellow business departments more latitude to acquire and manage their own IT systems where they have a business case, budget and need to move quickly?
José: What do you think? I have a simple maxim: “if it looks like IT… feels like IT… smells like IT… then it is IT and the CIO is responsible for it.” This is not just a matter of governance, important though that is, it is at the heart of CIO as CEO of IT. If the CIO doesn’t take full responsibility for IT, someone else will and the CIO as equal business partner will become impossible.
Brinley: I think that’s a good place to park our conversation José, it brings us right up to date with what’s happening in large corporates today and should leave our readers in no doubt on where you stand in these matters.
I would like to urge readers to get hold of a copy of José’s book, “The Practical CIO”. It’s available through Amazon, it’s very readable and it’s packed with real examples and detailed, practical advice on how CIOs can pursue the direction that José advocates, based on his own long and broad experience in some of the world’s great corporations.
We would like to thank Thomas Connelly of Boyden Miami for making this interview possible.