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12/2/2010
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John McGreavy
John McGreavy
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Secret CIO: What Makes For A High-Performing IT Manager?

Our intrepid CIO's views on the attributes that put IT pros on the fast track--and the qualities holding some of them back.

Talk all you want about the innovation budget, alignment with the business, and a seat at the table, but if you can't translate opportunities into results, none of that matters. Like most CIOs, I count on my key managers to make it all happen.

What makes for a high-performing IT manager? Consider this one CIO's views. Judge for yourself if your CIO shares some of them.

>> Are you sure you want to do this? My best IT managers focus on managing people. The soft stuff becomes the hard stuff. To be effective, they must also evolve from technology specialists to generalists in some new areas. The question for many is: How do I go from here to there? In some cases, the more important question is: Do I really want to?

A discussion with one of our talented IT specialists highlighted what is often a personal dilemma. Steve is one of our networking gurus. He also has strong interpersonal skills and is comfortable in front of non-technical peers. He has management potential.

But when given project management opportunities, Steve has struggled. He complains that no one can predict the results of testing new gear, so it's impossible to commit to deadlines. And he'll remind me that "a new release is just around the corner, so we should probably wait for it before making a final decision." Until Steve is ready to reconcile himself with what he sees as an unfair trade-off, management work will frustrate him.

Effective IT managers don't give up their passion for technology, but they learn to subordinate it to reach larger objectives. They stay hands-off when they would rather be hands-on. They spend more of their time talking about the how rather than the what.

>> Have you learned another language? Effective IT managers spend time with their business counterparts. They ask questions and broaden their perspectives. In a public setting, they keep their dweebiness to themselves.

"I can't understand a thing he says," remarked Randy, one of our division VPs. He was talking about Rod, one of our technical support supervisors, who also has management potential. "Megabits, DSL speeds, WAN acceleration, caching? The computers are slow at the branch office—can't you guys fix it?" Rod's explanation to Randy contained a positive message: Our pending implementation of WAN accelerators will speed things up noticeably. But that's not what Randy heard.

>> Have you found the right balance? An IT manager's staff needs to know that their boss understands their pain and doesn't make unreasonable requests. It's for this reason that most LOB managers make poor IT managers.

When I was a programmer, our VP of IT was replaced with an LOB VP to "get IT more focused on delivering what the business needs." Peter, a personable guy, understood nothing about IT. Once a few key people, including consultants, figured that out, they swayed him easily to their preferred tech solutions. And once we figured out he had no clue about what we did, we tuned out. Some of the most critical IT work happens in the background. Peter cared little about this work and constantly wanted it cut back. Some of our best people left for companies where they felt appreciated.

My best managers don't let go; they loosen up. Sure, there are times when they're into more detail than I want to hear about, but as long as they're working on getting their balance right, I'm OK with it.

The managers who will replace me, however, are taking things to another level. More about those folks in the coming weeks.

The author, the real-life CIO of a billion-dollar-plus company, shares his experiences under the pseudonym John McGreavy. Got a Secret CIO story of your own to share? Contact jmcgreavy@techweb.com.

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