by Matt Leathers

Do you need a wolf or a peacemaker?

Aug 25, 2016
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Know the difference between the two to drive the outcome that you want.

A good crisis brings out the Wolf.

Were you hit with a set of regulatory findings? Is your product launch significantly behind schedule? Did a power outage knock your mission-critical systems offline? 

CIOs in crisis are a dream client for the wolves of consulting. Hourly rates are not discounted. You can fill a consultant logo bingo card if you stand at the security desk long enough. It gets crowded and it gets rough when you are jockeying for position.

The problem is that these situations rarely generate an environment for sustainable, enduring solutions. Often, we are working to save our client sponsor’s skin, rather than building consensus around a long-term plan.

In an extreme experience, the technology lead was struggling to adapt after being acquired. The team was struggling to meet the requirements and deadlines established by the business. His business counterpart had him on the ropes, arguing that the division should reorganize to give the business direct control over technology.

The business lead had a team from my firm, working tirelessly and loyally. They relentlessly sought to make their client look good. The technology lead decided to fight fire with fire. He called the firm and became my client.

When we tried to share project status details with one another, the business lead and my client forbid us from speaking to one another. Diplomacy failed. Game on. Six months later, after another reorganization, my client was still standing. Game over.

Before you unleash your consultants, here are three key questions to ask:

What am I trying to achieve?

My clients have spent an extraordinary amount of money sending us from meeting to meeting, whipping from one day to the next. I have literally gone weeks without meeting my client sponsor, checking in every so often via email. 

Alternatively, I have spent days at a time sitting with clients in meetings. My role was to act as a personal bodyguard, ensuring that they were prepared for any surprise questions about IT efficiency, reliability, finances.

The common thread between the two extremes is the lack of planning. “Make me look good” is hard to quantify in a statement of work. Those contracts are written as time and materials, plus expenses, at high margins.

Instead, clearly establish your top outcomes and slot them into a time frame, e.g., a 30-, 60- or 90-day plan. When you are selecting a firm, interview the key members of the proposed team for their approach to your problems.

Am I thinking Lizard Brain?

I had a therapist (all consultants should be in therapy) who once described our two mental states as Bird’s Eye and Lizard Brain. Bird’s Eye sees the whole system — people, process and technology — separating emotion and personal feelings from the facts. Carl Honore, an advocate of Slow Management, emphasizes the need to take a breath and be purposeful and deliberate.

Lizard Brain is anything but slow. This mode of management reacts to feelings and emotions.  Lizard Brain leaders make shortsighted decisions based on instinct and pain avoidance, particularly when they are stressed or under pressure. Pressure is the natural state for a leader, but it does not have to be the default.

Consider your current mode of thinking. Go Bird’s Eye. A new help desk will not cure your issues with IT service reliability. Agile is not a cure-all for innovation. Establishing market presence in China will not ensure growth. Stop. Before you send the squad to march up a hill, check to see that you are not using your Lizard Brain. Evolve.

Do I listen to my trusted advisers?

After Abraham Lincoln won the U.S. Presidency in 1860, he filled his cabinet with former rivals and competent critics. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and intelligence to avoid being manipulated or controlled in such a situation.

Consultants typically bring industry and prior client experience to the table. This can provide a fresh perspective. However, your existing colleagues and team members often have depth and understanding of your specific business and technology that put most consultants to shame.

Consulting teams often prepare plans that are almost impossible to maintain without more consulting services. Before a strategic road map or remediation plan is drafted, you should identify key members of your staff to help with the design. This ensures that the plan is achievable, sustainable and informed.

Sometimes, you are in crisis and you need a bigger, badder Wolf. Most of the time, you need a Peacemaker who can work well with your colleagues to build a sustainable path forward without burning any bridges.