by Pat Brans

Reflections of a retiring CIO | Red Cross CIO Ed Happ on changing role and advice for aspiring IT directors

Aug 22, 2016

CIO of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) in Geneva, Ed Happ, will be retiring from a CIO career lasting almost two decades on September 15. CIO UK caught up with Happ, the former CIO at Save the Children, to discuss the changing CIO landscape, and offer advice for new CIOs and those aspiring to the CIO role.

How would you describe the CIO role today? Ed Happ: I think of today’s CIOs as three chiefs. They have to be Chief Translator. Much of the technology world is a foreign language. We pride ourselves on learning it. We’re masters of all the acronyms. But our business colleagues, whom we serve and enable, don’t speak that language. IT directors have to translate in both directions between two different communities – from technology to business, and from business to technology.

The second chief is Chief Amplifier. This is a term I got from Jerry Sternin who was a country manager of Save The Children in Vietnam. He had a theory that he called “positive deviance”, which was to find an exception in an organisation or in a business practice that is succeeding, and for which you want to turn up the volume to make it work elsewhere.

In large multinationals this is very important because you have so many different things going on. The bet is, somebody, somewhere, has already solved 80% of your problem. Your job as a CIO is to discover that innovation and dial the volume up on it.

The third chief is Chief Connecter. It’s about enabling the conversations to happen that need to be happening. Some have called these the “courageous conversations”. The CIO needs to connect the people who need to talk, especially the ones with similar problems and opportunities.

What tips do you have for young and aspiring IT directors? Ed Happ:As you move from the technical roles (where many IT directors start out), and then into management and up to CIO, it’s the non-technical skills that become more and more important. I have five tips that may help young and aspiring IT directors move in that direction.

The first tip I have is to become a good listener. Let other people speak; think about the solution last. We are all wonderful problem solvers. We are all wonderful solution-mode people. The error many of us commit is to jump directly into a solution before we’ve done adequate listening. So do your best to shut up and listen to the problem the business user is trying to solve.

My second tip is to cultivate humility. This is a tough one. When you make the change from being an excellent, top-rated staff member to being a first-time supervisor, you have to overcome two hurdles. The first hurdle is that you know how to do it better and faster than anybody else, but you have to bite your tongue and sit on your hands to let the other people on your team do it. The second hurdle is even more challenging: You have to let your own sense of pride come from their solving the problem.

The two groups who have the hardest time making that shift from top-rated staff to first-time supervisor are salespeople (who get all sorts of bonuses from being at the top of their sales game) and technologists (who are also at the top of their game before moving into the supervisory role).

My third tip is to embrace paradoxes. Martha Heller of CIO magazine in the US wrote a wonderful book called “The CIO Paradox”. I was one of the reviewers when she was first writing the book. She lists 16 paradoxes.

My advice to the up-and-coming IT professional is to learn about the paradoxes. Don’t strive to solve them. Strive to embrace them. Let these contradictions exist together.

My top three of this list that I’ve experienced acutely are as follows:

  • The first is that you are the steward of risk mitigation and cost containment, yet you’re expected to innovate. If you spend most of your effort focusing on risk mitigation, you’ll reject most innovation.
  • The second is that your function is seen as a service provider, but you’re also expected to be a business driver. So the IT department is not just in that service role; it’s an enabler. As you move up in the IT, you need to become more business process oriented than technology oriented.
  • The third one is that you run one of the most pervasive, critical functions in an organisation, but you must prove your value constantly. I produced an annual IT report; and one of the key aspects of the report is to list the value we’ve provided the business last year. This is the marketing side of IT. Most people don’t know what IT does. So it’s important to tell them the many things we did for them.

My forth tip to young and aspiring CIOs is to practice storytelling. Cultivate the ability to tell stories, which is a more powerful way of making a point or inspiring imagination than a deck of presentation slides. We all tell stories as soon as we leave the office, but we tend not to do so at work. The best leaders are frequently the best storytellers.

My fifth and final tip is to gain political savvy. There’s no such thing as no politics. As much as IT people hate them, they have to know that game – if only to be aware of what’s happening around them. I’m not suggesting they become pathological political people, but to recognise and deal with politics by focusing on points of convergence an agreement.

Have you ever thought about moving into a CEO position? Ed Happ: You often hear this notion that a CIO must aspire to be a CEO. I don’t think this is necessarily true. There was a time I aspired to be CEO, but that was 25 years ago, before my agenda shifted from success to significance. Since then I’ve had no desire to be CEO.

I loved being CIO. The CIO role is a noble role.