Former NASA CIO shares her lessons learned as chief information officer of a top federal agency.
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I don't have much downtime these days, since I'm in year two of the startup of Muse Technologies. But, on one of those rare occasions (waiting for my laptop to reboot), I caught up on some reading.
I noticed that many of my former colleagues were leaving, and that there were a high number of vacancies in the CIO seat across our community. For that reason, I thought that the new incoming CIOs would value a few tips from a survivor.
1. Hone your leadership skills and learn how to be truly influential. The definition of influence is "the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something." In our federal IT community, we often mistake popularity with influence. It's not how many people ask you to speak at an event. It's how many people actually listen. This is a hard thing to measure, but you won't be able to measure it until you check your ego at the door.
I recall that I was extremely popular with the industry when my agency had a $300 million procurement on the street. Everyone told me I was smart and beautiful. I got even smarter and more beautiful when my agency had a $4.2 billion procurement out.
You need to understand why people listen to you. It's a function of your character, your knowledge, and your experience. Don't be seduced (and that is the right word) into thinking it is anything else by mistaking the side effects of your position with actual influence. Successful leaders get things done. When they talk, people listen and take action. Furthermore, they are laser focused on what it takes to get results, and they know how to execute.
Lou Gerstner was CEO for IBM from 1993 to 2002. He is credited with doing the impossible task of saving the life of the company. The job was viewed as impossible. In his book Who Says Elephants Can't Dance, Gerstner made this observation before he made a decision to take the job:
IBM sales and profits were declining at an alarming rate. More important, its cash position was getting scary... I was convinced that... the odds were not better than one in five that IBM could be saved and that I should never take the position.
But Gerstner took the position anyway. He reversed a decision to decentralize the company. Instead, he created divisions needed to implement his vision. He relentlessly drove a strategy that supported his obsession with the customer. He encouraged innovation, was committed to quality, and delivered performance and value to the customer. Accomplishing this impossible feat required being focused, being superb at execution, and using the full potential of personal leadership.
As a federal CIO, you will face problems that are very difficult to solve. For this reason, you must have vision, a long attention span, execution skills, and an ability to get people to help you implement that vision. Things don't fall into place because of your position. They happen because you made them happen.
2. It's IT governance, stupid! Whatever you think your No. 1 problem is, you are wrong, unless it is IT governance. If you are a new CIO, you're going to hear the phrase "If government were run like a business" countless times. As a matter of a fact, if you had a nickel for each time you heard it, you would have enough money to start your own business.
However, if government were run like a business, then department heads would have conversations with CIOs about getting more business value out of IT. Instead, CIOs spend more time talking to CFOs about how to reduce the cost of IT spend.
The discipline of information technology governance derives from corporate governance and deals primarily with the connection between business focus and IT management of an organization. It highlights the importance of IT related matters in contemporary organizations and states that strategic IT decisions should be owned by the corporate board, rather than by the chief information officer or other IT managers.
So, IT governance, as a discipline, is of the business, by the business, and for the business. That translates to being of the mission, by the mission, and for the mission. So, if there are disconnects between the IT management
Linda Cureton is the former CIO of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is now CEO of Muse Technologies, Inc., specializing in IT transformation. Her company helps organizations develop strong leadership, technology solutions, and program management ... View Full Bio
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