Five Tips for Being a Successful CIO

What becomes a leader most? Take a lesson (or five) from those who possess the skills and qualities a successful CIO must have.

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But change is a two-way street. Not only did the business have to change, IT did too. The culture of nay-saying had to go. "The guidance I give to my staff is that you don't say no," says Sandberg. "When someone comes to us and says, 'I need this,' we say, 'That's great. We'll work on it. But first come up with the business case.'"

CIO Tom Murphy says that Sandberg's gentle forcefulness makes him a natural at finding ways to lead others in a new direction. Murphy credits Sandberg's "ability to change the way people do their jobs and keep them laughing at the same time" as a key factor in his success at effecting change within the organization.

"He's a statesman," says Murphy. "He just has that innate capability to be patient and empathetic. He shows how change will help you, and that is what is invaluable because IT departments are all about change."

Tip: Introducing change is risky. Support those risk takers in your department by providing a safe harbor in which taking risks is not discouraged and second-guessing is kept to a minimum.

The Project Driver

Linda Gilpin, associate CIO for Enterprise Services at the IRS, calls Gina Garza a "quadruple threat" because she excels at four of the five roles an up-and-coming CIO must play. But where Garza really shines is at delivering projects, says Gilpin. So Garza, the IRS's deputy associate CIO for business integration, is the winner of the Standout: Project Driver award.

And that's a good thing for the IRS, now in the midst of its third attempt to modernize the systems that manage tax forms for 200 million Americans. Poor project management derailed a previous modernization attempt in the late '90s, wasting more than $3 billion. But with help from IT leaders such as Garza, the IRS "has improved its 2006 filing season performance," according to the Government Accountability Office, especially in electronic filing and online tax assistance. Garza's office played an important role in this success by developing services that benefited both these programs.

Garza honed her ability to execute projects during time spent on the business side of the IRS. While there she introduced the use of experts to work with project managers on teasing out the necessary requirements for projects. When Garza moved to IT, she took the idea and turned it into the Centers of Excellence, a stable of 40 project management experts plus some outside contractors who each focus on a specific activity such as lifecycle management or cost estimation. When one of the IRS's four tax divisions requests help with a project, the Centers of Excellence can provide a single expert or a whole team, depending on the need.

The natural tendency of project managers is to not give up control, so "it's a hard model to sell," says Garza. "But once it is put in place, people like it and word gets around."

To establish the model's credibility, Garza turned to colleagues who trusted her abilities and asked them to try it in their shop. For example, last year she worked with the project manager in charge of the third release of the IRS's electronic tax filing project. Garza supplied an expert on cost estimation to make sure the bids on the new release, which expanded the type of tax forms that could be filed electronically, were reasonable. Electronic filing has been an IRS success story: This past tax filing year, almost two-thirds of Americans filed their tax returns electronically.

Garza say the keys to driving a project are having a clear vision and goals, establishing a good team, and utilizing proven processes and design solutions. "You don't learn it as you go," she adds.

Tip: Be disciplined in not allowing projects to advance to the next stage before key components are completed. But remember, flexibility is vital. Learn what is a nonnegotiable item (like obtaining a security certification) and what is less important (like a transition plan).

The Team Builder

The state prison system is the last place you would expect to find someone to rebuild your IT team and turn around its sagging internal reputation. But that is exactly where Steve McDowell, CIO at Holiday Retirement, found Deputy CIO Tonya Ruscoe, winner of the Standout: Team Builder award.

Ruscoe wasn't an inmate. In fact, she didn't even possess the traditional IT technical skills. Before coming to Holiday a little more than a year ago, Ruscoe was a project manager in Oregon's Department of Corrections and had scored a great success in helping the system drop its three-year recidivism rate from 33 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2002. Her ability to work with the corrections system's many internal and external stakeholders to improve performance caught McDowell's attention. He called her to discuss how team-building could help Holiday's IT department, which had some very talented managers who did not communicate well. Such poor communication creates a difficult environment in which to support an expanding business. But the operator of retirement communities faced another challenge: Holiday's culture is a people-oriented one that downplays technology. The CEO had a computer on his desk, but rarely used it; the COO did not even have a computer.

McDowell persuaded Ruscoe to take on the job of turning around Holiday's IT department. After she arrived, Ruscoe began researching team relationship theory and used experiences from her previous job to develop a program to teach the IT staff the difference between a group and a team. The department was filled with talented workers who successfully built up their respective IT services, such as network management and help desk assistance. That model worked well when Holiday was a small company, but with plans to grow rapidly, the company needed a technology team that could synchronize IT services and improve communication with the rest of the company to deliver the required business value and efficiencies to compete in the retirement market.

Ruscoe developed a yearlong program for the IT staff, which included two and a half hours per month in class learning about teamwork. Staffers also took personality tests and role-played. Many companies offer similar exercises during retreats every year. What made this effort different, Ruscoe says, is that the lessons learned in the program were applied during the weekly staff meetings. By understanding personality types, she reasoned, managers can better understand how to communicate with one another.

Ruscoe now has the IT department working to improve internal customer service and change the company's perception of technology. IT has developed a communication plan associated with every service it provides the company. For example, if the help desk is overwhelmed with calls, the IT department dives in and dissects the problem. "That way we can find out what the problem really is and serve our customer better," McDowell says.

The IT department's reputation has improved as a result of the changes, Ruscoe says. "It's like anything with IT. It's not based on technology systems but rather people systems," she says. "You have to improve how people work together to improve how technology works."

Tip: Foster personal development with the goal of improving communication. Be prepared to dedicate time and effort to a long-term program that uses on-the-job situations to reinforce what has been learned in workshops and exercises.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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