It is no secret that the priorities of the C-level executive and those of his team are rarely the same. The reality is, they shouldn’t be. The C-level, whether it be the CFO, CMO or CIO, by definition, should be thinking strategically, planning for the future and ensuring his or her function is aligned with the business’ objectives. In most functions, even though the priorities are different, the team marches in the same general direction.
However, as CIOs strive to better align their function with the business, many are struggling to maintain alignment inside their organization. In 2002, my company, AZtech Strategies, conducted a study to understand how large enterprises were addressing the security challenges brought to the forefront by 9/11.
Out of curiosity, we interviewed three levels within the IT organization: CIO, a direct report and a line manager. As expected, there was a chasm between the priorities of the line manager and CIO. While the direct report and CIO had different priorities, they were, in fact, tightly aligned.
We revisited this topic of alignment inside of the IT organization this past spring. We found the opposite scenario. The manager and CIO’s direct report were in lock-step. But neither was in sync with the CIO. What happened?
The over simplified answer is that the more aligned the CIO is with the business as a whole, the more disconnected he or she is with the functional group. The day-to-day world of IT has very little connection to strategic imperatives. The question is, should it?
Divided We Stand
The CIOs we spoke to were divided. Just over 50% felt their organization needed to keep its focus on the tactical realities of keeping the IT ship afloat. The balance felt their teams needed to be as aligned as they can with the rest of business.
Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Most IT teams are running extremely lean with barely enough resources to keep up with day-to-day demands. While logic might dictate it would be wonderful if all of IT understood and supported the strategic imperatives of the business, the hard truth is, who has the time?
The 47% of CIOs who made it a priority, without exception, claimed the investment delivered a significant return. In fact, the IT departments of these CIOs receive significantly higher satisfaction scores than those of their peers. How do they do it?
We uncovered three leading practices. At first glance, there is nothing leading about these practices. They read more like a management 101 primer, which according to these CIOs, is the point.
The CIOs who feel internal and external alignment is critical to their success are committed to communication. They view their role as that of a translator. Rather than leaving their organization to interpret corporate strategy and organizational change announcements, they accompany each and every announcement with an explanation of how it applies to IT, the implications it has on the day-to-day activities of the various groups and the long range opportunity it presents to both IT and the business.
These CIOs feel the 45 minutes it takes to write a translation or host a departmental conference call stops days of water cooler discussions and keeps rumors from gaining traction.
They also encourage open communication. For these CIOs this is much more than an open door policy. They actively seek input from all levels of their organization by making themselves accessible in casual environments. It can be as simple as having one lunch a week in the cafeteria or showing up at a birthday celebration.
The point is to be approachable. CIOs claim the insight and ideas they collect from casual interactions are well worth the hour or two out of their calendar. Several CIOs go so far as to describe it as invigorating.
The CIOs also state lack of alignment is a clear sign that IT is too insular. IT tends to adopt an “us against them” mentality, and the “us” can be the business as a whole or another team within IT. To combat this, these CIOs cross-pollinate. They insist that direct reports and line managers sit on cross-functional teams inside and outside of IT. They hold themselves accountable for insuring this cross-pollination is happening.
This is what requires the greatest commitment. These CIOs stated that it is very easy to delegate the integration role to their direct reports. However, doing so dilutes the value. To be truly effective, cross-pollination must be creative without being disruptive. This takes careful thought. CIOs state they brainstorm assignments with direct reports as well as with their peers. The process of creating the assignments does as much to foster alignment as the assignments themselves.
Although it is difficult for anyone to step outside of their comfort zone, IT-types find it particularly challenging. It is much easier to bury themselves in the minutia of their job, of which there is plenty. These CIOs provide incentive to their teams with monetary and non-monetary rewards. Their overarching objective is to acknowledge and reward those staffers who go out of their way to connect their roles and responsibilities with the strategic intent of the business.
Anne Zink is founder of AZtech Strategies and go-to-market strategy consultant for the high tech industry. AZtech is dedicated to developing multi-channel strategies based on customer expectations, channel input, and industry expertise. AZtech specializes in bringing emerging technologies and services to market.