Happy New Year: My Crisis Call from a CIO
It happened. Again. In my 20+ years of headhunting, the new year often brings a realization of, “here we go again” that comes from some of the executives I help. As the 14-second iPhone message played, the awkward and forced voice spoke…
“Um, Hey Jon… it’s Steve. I hope you and the family had a good Christmas and the new year is off to a good start. I am doing OK… I guess. Anyway, I was thinking about you and wanted to connect. Call me when you can. Thanks.”
In just 14 seconds, I literally heard the life being sucked out of his voice.
“Steve” is a CIO that I placed three years ago into his dream job with a regional insurance company serving the agricultural communities of four Midwestern states. I vividly remember the story around this placement. Steve grew up through the ranks as a developer, project manager, team leader, and director. He was looking for “his shot” to be a CIO. He wanted the title, respect, glory (and money) that went with being top dog in an IT organization. Honestly, the 106-year-old insurance company probably needed both a CIO and a corporate magician to get where they needed to be with technology. Typical of other organizations with their pedigree, technology was a “gotta have” cost center for the organization. You know, keep the lights on, provide a database and billing system to manage the policy process, and provide a network for email and telephony. As the world of technology continued its frenzied “bat out of hell” pace, their systems, infrastructure and approach were more than out of date. They were approaching extinction. They were antiquated and far from the mobile-first, self-serve, agile weapon that the enemy (competitors) had been building. Their enemies had amassed IT organizations that had purpose. These groups were focused on serving internal and external customers. They became a competitive advantage for the organization. Oh, they were also joined at the hip with the business. Most importantly, IT had a seat at the table. They were strategic and necessary. They weren’t second class citizens or an afterthought to the enterprise. Not so where Steve was headed.
Let me be clear. Steve knew the score going in. There was no smoke and mirrors going on here. My representation of the environment clearly laid out the challenges that would face the new leader. Steve knew the time warp, back to the future bubble he was walking into. He knew the path would be laced with landmines and potholes. He sold me, and my client, that he was up for the task. The position motivated him for the challenge to make his mark. He was undeterred. Having been the #2 in a much larger organization with an almost similar starting point, Steve felt prepared. He had been there before to help his boss lead the charge. They made the turn of IT being a cost center to one of being a legitimate asset. Everything in Steve’s career, education and experience had groomed him for this time. Steve was ready. It was now his day in the sun.
Three years later, the honeymoon effect is a distant vaporized memory. Current reality weighs heavy on him – making progress feel like he’s operating in quicksand. For the first time, he’s felt an increase in resting blood pressure and body mass as evidenced by a growing waist line. Stress, board meetings, vendor dinners, and conferences can have their impact - in more ways than one. It hasn’t all been bad. Yes, there have been wins. Some. Steve is learning (again) that change is hard. Everyone wants better. Grow or die as they say. Everyone says they want change. They cleverly leave out their feelings that change should emanate from another column of the org chart – just not with them, thank you. Oh, and as long as this change makes things easier, cheaper and requires little to no impact on their well-set routines… fine, bring it on. However, as we know, change is messy, hard stuff. The skills that brought Steve to the dance aren’t the skills he needs to win the dance-off. They aren’t what he needs to take the lead role in the sophistication of the tango required for this transformation. We’ve heard it all before. What got him here – won’t keep him here.
It should be a surprise to no one really. The previously shiny, new (and far off) three-year road maps were coming to a close. Real world deadlines loomed with their oppressive vice-like grip. Doubt, fear and frustration took their place on center stage. This three-year journey has affected him. Steve’s mind has shifted and his eyes narrow to only see the gaps, missed deadlines and challenges. He’s defensive now, for the first time in his career. What just three years ago was viewed as opportunity for growth, improvement and impact, now look like entrenched enemies unwilling to surrender. Just three years ago these same obstacles glimmered with hope for mini-wins, notches in the belt and momentum builders. They were to be his venue for leave his mark. Now, they are just tangible reminders of painful problems, missed expectations – and serve as Steve’s fuel and rationalization to move on to greener pastures.
While I’ve worked in and around IT for more than two decades, I am not an IT guy. I don’t know the details of application systems, infrastructure, security protocols, and best practices for Devops. Build vs. buy, outsource, insource, nearshore or homemade – all are decision trees that I don’t navigate, ponder or assess. However, dealing with the human side of these decisions and their inevitable impact on people is something that I’ve lived thousands of times alongside the professionals who do.
Over time, patterns develop and emerge. Stories with very different characters, plots and themes crescendo to eerily similar endings. To be brutally honest, I am glad they do. They create opportunity for me and my firm. Being detached from the nuanced ins and outs of these stories gives me a perspective that is unique, albeit voyeuristic, to the careers and companies involved.
About now, you may be thinking it’s our fault. We, (the client and I), set Steve up to fail. Expectations weren’t set. Shared vision and collaboration were lacking to ensure that Steve had a fighting chance for survival. The vetting process should have identified these very obvious and predictable challenges. Was Steve equipped to take this on? Did his experience, skillset, leadership and communication have the right DNA for this role? Was the client committed, ready and prepared for the change they desired?
As always, there are multiple sides to the story. Monday morning assessments have many of us feeling like Tom Brady, Nick Saban or Jeff Bezos. It’s only natural to second guess decisions made with the perspective of hindsight. We all do it.
To put you at ease, the client company and its board all concur – the right decision was made. Steve was their man. Steve would tell you that there was no misrepresentation of the facts, situation or climate. All parties went into this eyes wide open.
Actually, Steve’s call came in January of 2016 – last year. Steve and I ended up having several conversations throughout 2016. For some calls, I listened as Steve described the antiquated thinking of the Board. In other calls, Steve saw hope and progress in his situation. Some were outlets for him to blow off steam and get perspective on the situation. And some were focused on what the current market had available as his escape hatch. In all the calls, the human side of fear, frustration and personal journey were present. My role as executive recruiter looks like part therapist, part sports agent and part trusted advisor/friend that is able to dispense some tough love, unbiased ear or market perspective as needed. What I find predictable is the human side of these situations. When faced with challenge and change - it’s easy to second guess ourselves and teammates. Finding problems is obvious and easy. In fact, Captain Obvious should be demoted to a lower rank. Any technically savvy fourth grader could see the need for a mobile-first approach in business today. Identifying, clarifying and prioritizing these problems for an organization is only step one. The real work is executing a plan that has been collaboratively vetted, tested and implemented where the final results are tangible and undisputed. This is where leaders leave their mark, and earn their keep. Navigating the sea of change and uncertainty is not for the faint of heart. Bridging the gap from yesterday to tomorrow is noble, challenging work. Average job tenure for IT leaders and chronic cost and time overruns for failed initiatives give terabytes of evidence to this fact. Fast forward one year. Steve is still standing. Same company, same role. Progress has been made and yes, challenges still exist. Steve is battle hardened and has advanced to the next stage of his career. Thankfully Steve has been through the fire and emerges better for the experience. Perhaps a little greyer up top, but that serves as a reminder for what he’s learned. Steve tells me he’s learned much about himself and people along the way. He’s now a tenured veteran that has earned the respect of his team and the business. Our client tells me that while not perfect, Steve was “the right guy at the right time” for their organization. The President shared with me, “Steve and the teams have experienced hard fought growth over the past three years. I like where we are.” I was thankful to get this news. Of course, the story continues, but for now, today, it’s a win-win. They don’t all work out this way.
Steve’s experience serves as a reminder for all of us on many levels. While not exhaustive, four points float to the top for me:
Change is hard. Painfully true when people are involved. When upgrading a software/network release – the software or system doesn’t resist change. No matter how great the promise land of your new destination – moving the cheese in any organization requires a much different set of skills and artistry to be successful. There is no way to make everyone happy – do what you know is right.
Build your tribe. Steve’s boss had him as a #2. Steve missed a key opportunity in his new role. While he did engage with many levels throughout the business and IT – he needed a sidekick to see things he couldn’t and share in the load. Jordan had Pippen. Jobs had the Woz. Gates had Allen. Lone Ranger had Tonto. Steve finally got his #2 – but would have been much better off doing so earlier.
Communication. With change, it’s impossible to over-communicate. This plays out daily in virtually all organizations. Leaders think they’ve done their job once they’ve communicated the vision. Maybe they channeled Simon Sinek and tied it to the why. But the reality is that communication is hard stuff and requires multiple media and approaches in varying language and timing. Adoption happens only when complete osmosis and transfer of message, meaning and plan extends from sender to receiver, and validation that head and heart are engaged top to bottom.
Embrace Honesty. It’s never as bad or good as you think it is. Publically owning the setbacks and publically sharing the wins is the mantra for success. As Steve encountered the inevitable challenges, roadblocks and detractors, over time he was beat down and less effective. It’s easy for any leader to take on the task and at times feel like the salmon swimming upstream – fighting for the finish regardless of the obstacles. Taking intentional timeouts to assess what’s working/not working and gather necessary retrospective from team and business is critical. It’s even more important to do so early and often when new to an organization and implementing any change or disruption to the ecosystem. Lesson learned from Steve and thankfully no permanent damage to the organization or him.
Welcome to the new year and the new day it brings for all of us. I haven’t had my “Steve” call yet this year, but it’s coming– I know it.