by Lauren Gibbons Paul

What Staffers Are Saying About CIOs

Sep 15, 200310 mins
IT Leadership

Not long ago, Joanne Birkin got an e-mail from her boss, the CIO of a large Midwestern food company, asking for her feedback on his performance. The CIO asked three of his direct reports: What should I stop doing? What should I start doing? What should I continue?

Sounds like a constructive exercise. But not in this case. Birkin huddled with her colleagues, and they decided to limit their “stops” and “starts” to three apiece. “Any more than three would be too discouraging for him,” says Birkin, director of the project management office. (Her name was changed at her request.) On the list: Stop micromanaging experienced team members. Start developing a systems road map for the frequent mergers and acquisitions. There were no “continues.”

The employees e-mailed their feedback to the CIO. And never heard another word about it. ¿

If you’re tempted to dismiss this CIO as a tone-deaf jerk from fly-over country, consider this: In a CIO survey done in May with TopCoder, a company that hosts a Web-based community of IT professionals, 400 IT professionals almost universally gave their head honchos a thumbs-down. Among the findings:

  • 45 percent don’t believe their CIOs communicate changes in IT well enough.
  • 52 percent said their CIOs don’t foster a team environment.
  • A whopping 93 percent said their CIOs don’t spend enough time developing future IT leaders.

Those are some of the lowlights (for survey results, see “What You Need to Work On,” Page 61). What the results indicate—and interviews with IT staffers and experts reinforce—is that CIOs need to take the time to improve their management skills and cultivate their employees’ skills if they want to retain IT talent and see their organizations succeed.

In this article, we explore some reasons for the low scores and what you can do about them (see “Management To-Do List,” Page 64, and “Morale-Boosting Moves,” Page 68). Another important story in this issue, “How to Launch a Leader” (Page 70), explains the benefits of developing CIOs of the future now and gives ideas for making it happen.

Savvy Managers SOught

Conducted online, our unscientific survey attracted a self-selected group of respondents. Disgruntled individuals are more likely to participate. But to a person, the 10 IT staffers interviewed for this story were professional and measured in their comments. Most were highly frustrated at what they saw as shortcomings in their CIOs.

So, what’s going on here?

For one thing, despite all the emphasis on business-savvy CIOs, many still come up through the technical ranks and are promoted into the role. Nearly 70 percent of survey participants said their CIOs’ primary background was in IT. Only a third said the bulk of their CIOs’ experience was in business. Those results coincide with a survey of 539 IT executives CIO conducted for the “State of the CIO” issue: 82 percent identified IT jobs as influential in their careers. Consulting was a distant second. (For more survey results, see

That means that when IT leaders reach the CIO level, they probably have a limited background in management. And it’s not as if management skills are magically transmitted upon ascension to the CIO seat.

“I see it all the time. The most technically proficient person gets promoted, but management is the most important part of the job,” says Beverly Lieberman, president of executive search firm Halbrecht Lieberman Associates.

Bill Howard, senior vice president and CIO at $11.4 billion Sun Microsystems, isn’t surprised by the survey results. Most CIOs are much more comfortable with technology than management, he says. “By and large, IT people are a type of engineer. They’re not rewarded for people-oriented things until they reach a certain level.”

Howard worked up through the IT ranks himself. But he counts himself among the lucky few who received lots of training and professional development along the way. He started his career in the Navy and also worked at IBM—and he was groomed to be an effective manager at both places.

Cecil Smith, CIO at $15.7 billion Duke Energy, started his career in IT after earning a degree in applied mathematics. Smith went on to earn an MBA and got further management training through the Young Executives Institute at the University of North Carolina. But CIOs such as Howard and Smith are in the minority.

“In IT, you tend to value the person who doesn’t talk much, stays in their cubicle and keeps their head down. One day you make that person a project manager, and then you can’t understand why all they want to do is stay in their cubicle and not talk to anyone,” says Jerry Gregoire, a CIO Advisory Board member who served as CIO at PepsiCo and Dell.

The Economy Is Not an Excuse

This experience gap is one reason scores in this survey sag, these practitioners agree. There is debate, however, about whether other executives—CEO, COO and the like—would get similar report cards in a management skills-style survey. Lieberman believes that given this year’s cloudy economy, the climate of layoffs and poor morale in corporate America, staffers would have equally bad feedback for other executives such as the CFO and COO. But Sun’s Howard is not convinced. “Other C-level executives have broader exposure to different facets of the business and its people. Technology people have a good understanding of the process, not the people issues,” he says. Removing the effects of the dismal economy on staffers’ morale, Howard believes other CXOs would fare better than their technical brothers.

A good economy buoys everyone, notes Chuck Lybrook, executive director of the Information Management Forum (and another CIO Advisory Board member). Lybrook says if CIOs were not good managers in the go-go days, it didn’t hurt morale much. Staffers knew they could get an exciting new job (with commensurate salary) very quickly. Today, IT staffers are likely to feel stuck. And bad attitudes can fester.

“We’re into the third year of no budget,” says Maria Schafer, program director for Meta Group. Layoffs are ubiquitous. Programming is moving offshore. Without money for bonuses or even cost-of-living increases for those who remain, many CIOs are pulling back. They’re holding fewer meetings, asking fewer questions, hiding behind closed doors or on the road, working from home. But withdrawal is exactly the wrong impulse.

CIOs worry they’ll get hammered if they sit down for a heart-to-heart dialogue with employees, Schafer says. But attempting to stay out of the fray is a major mistake. “You can’t help a situation by not knowing what’s going on” with the rank and file, she adds.

Staffers pick up signals by a leader’s action—or lack of action. Acting indifferently about what employees are doing rankles them.

“It’s very hard for me to know exactly what [the CIO] is doing. He doesn’t tell our users what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. He actually never shows any interest at all in what we’re doing. There’s no questions, no interaction,” says a senior systems engineer for a large entertainment company.

The systems engineer (who asked that he and his company not be quoted by name) reports several levels down from the CIO. He says that staff reductions sting, and the knowledge that executives including the CIO earn million-dollar paychecks also hurts. But what bothers him the most is the perception that no one notices what he’s doing. “I care about quality, and I like my job,” he says. People just want to feel like someone else has a stake in their work, he adds.

All told, IT staffers shared three other hot points of discontent.

  • A lack of leadership from the CIO. In interviews, many say their leaders are poor advocates for IT to the rest of the business. “He never sticks up for us or educates the business leaders on the lack of resources or the things we’re doing right,” says an information center consultant for a municipality.
  • Infrequent feedback. Many IT professionals report they receive no feedback, positive or negative, outside their yearly reviews.

    “I got great feedback from the head of the business unit,” says John Bartz, now an Atlanta-based independent consultant who was laid off by a large IT staffing company last winter. “That’s who I really considered my boss, though I technically reported to the CIO.”

  • Few training opportunities. At the systems engineer’s entertainment company, a training program exists on paper, but there’s no way to use it.

    “Having training available was supposed to be a way to spark interest and learning, to keep up morale,” he says. But with four technicians supporting 1,200 users, no one can get enough coverage to take advantage of the program.

Keeping an Ear to the Ground

CIOs who do help information flow both up and down the corporate ladder are treasured by their employees.

Stan Land is one of those employees. Land, vice president of enterprise applications for Duke Energy, says his CIO, Cecil Smith, is “about as good a communicator as I’ve seen” in his decades in IT. Smith, Land says, “ensures that our objectives and strategies are documented across the enterprise. I understand what mine are. I understand what my peers’ objectives are. We communicate quarterly where we are against those.”

Land, who is in contact with Smith at least once a day, says Smith uses e-mail and telephone calls as well as scheduled and impromptu meetings to take the temperature of his 2,000-person organization. He walks around a lot. “If there’s someone on my staff who knows something, [Smith] doesn’t go through me. He picks up the phone and calls them,” Land says. “I do not have any doubt in my mind where I stand with [Smith] or my management. If he has any questions as to why I made a certain decision, he asks immediately. Same for me.”

For his part, Smith characterizes his management style as simple common sense. “It’s as simple as showing up, walking around, identifying what’s going on,” Smith says. Duke occupies four buildings in its headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C. Smith makes sure he’s in each building on a weekly basis. He answers his phone and his e-mail. “It’s those kinds of things that keep you in the loop. I’m not 10 miles away or on the road all the time. I do better when I know what’s going on and I know what people are thinking and feeling—good or bad. That’s the culture we have here,” he says.

Though we’re now in the mother of all employers’ markets when it comes to IT staffing, CIOs cannot overlook the need to tend to staff morale issues for long. The economy will pick up eventually. “The demand for IT people will be one of the first areas to pick up. We’ll be right back where we were. Companies have not put holistic skills development initiatives in place. Everyone is so focused on cutting costs,” says Schafer of Meta.

Birkin from the Midwestern food company speaks for many when she voices the frustration and even pain her CIO has caused. The company has been working on a complex SAP R/3 implementation during the past few years. The IT group has risen to the challenge, delivering solid applications on deadline nearly 100 percent of the time.

“Performing at these levels—and with less staff—we really need a relationship-builder who can express what we’re doing. But he’s not a good advocate,” she says sadly of her CIO. “He’s very apologetic and continually tries to justify IT’s existence. But we’ve done a good job.”