by Susan Cramm

The Worst Job in IT

May 01, 20064 mins
IT Leadership

Change is unstoppable, and CIOs are climbing aboard. Nice for them. But they risk losing their staff unless they communicate better.

For as long as I can remember, there has been a tacit understanding that the worst job in IT is the CIO’s. While many IT professionals do their work guided by the principles articulated in the old engineering adage, “Cost, quality and time—pick two,” CIOs are expected to deliver on all three.

Well, the times they are a-changing. It recently occurred to me that the only thing worse than being in charge of an IT organization nowadays is not being in charge. Right now, driven by their need to respond to the business’s heightened expectations of what IT can and should deliver, and their own understanding of changing business and technology imperatives, CIOs are shaking up their departments, changing the rules of governance, architecture, process, costs and staffing under which they operate. (For more on the nature of this change, see The Postmodern Manifesto.) CIOs are turning up the heat on their organizations to make it all happen.

It’s not a whole lot of fun being on the receiving end of all these demands. That hit home for me last week while facilitating a planning meeting. The strategic challenge came down to this: How can an overburdened IT staff deliver while operating under instructions to offload their work to external providers when the governance, architectural and process mechanisms that would support it effectively are not in place?

This challenge is shared by most IT organizations and, in many ways, it’s hampering their ability to execute. Everyone knows that work would be a lot easier and, for now, would get done better, faster and cheaper if one’s own people were on point. Most IT professionals understand that organizational and sourcing changes are necessary to position their departments for the future, but there’s little enthusiasm within the IT department for this transformation because the changes are being done to them, not for them.

A Day in the Life

Imagine what it’s like to work in a typical IT organization today. Due to increased demands and headcount constraints, people are busier than ever. Jobs aren’t as much fun as they used to be because individuals have less control over how their work gets done. People are expected to transfer work that they understand and enjoy to outsiders. Many feel that they spend their days helping to ensure the success of their external service providers while simultaneously sabotaging their own.

To many, it feels like they are being asked to prepare the instruments of their own demise: “Get your work well-defined, organized and managed so that we can give it to somebody else.” While they’re busy reshaping their organizations, many CIOs are neglecting one of their fundamental leadership responsibilities: to help their people envision the future and their roles within it. It’s not sufficient to articulate the promise of tomorrow in terms of the marketplace. To resonate, visions and strategies must relate to the realities and concerns of the individual laborer in the IT fields.

For many leaders, this lack of sensitivity to the needs of the individuals within their organization is not just an oversight; many of them are unable to articulate what they have not yet fully internalized. On a typical day in the typical IT department, life is about execution, not reflection, and staff interactions focus on the near-term “how” rather than the more meaningful, but less immediate, “What about me?”

The Leadership Challenge

Leaders cannot afford to let individuals answer the “What about me?” question on their own. Without a clear picture of the future and their role within it, people will assume that the future doesn’t include them. The best and brightest will survive, but they will not necessarily remain with the organizations that need them. Solid, long-tenured professionals with the intellectual capital necessary to keep things running may stick, but without the sense of connection and engagement necessary to protect the organization’s long-term health.

One of the ways leaders can answer the “What about me?” question is through storytelling. Stories add meaning and context to work. What’s needed is a cogent tale explaining why IT’s future is brighter now than at any time in the past.

I do, in fact, believe that the future of IT is brighter than ever, and I’ll share my version of the IT strategic story in next month’s column. In the meantime, take a look at Mark Walton’s book, Generating Buy-In: Mastering the Language of Leadership, and begin crafting a story for your staff that articulates how IT will exceed the expectations of the enterprise while ensuring the success and satisfaction of all those involved.