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A collaborative approach to IT leadership (Part 1)

February 1, 2010

Originally posted on 6/19/2008

I’ve been doing some work on organizational architecture lately, and a good deal of what I’ve read deals with moving beyond the traditional CEO-COO structure to create a more collaborative, team-based approach to the C-level. Lots of folks have posited the need for some kind of executive team or leadership committee to replace the CEO-COO team, but I haven’t (yet) found a treatment that has the right blend of strategic and tactical advice for organizations looking for a collaborative model of executive leadership. Until I do, I’ve been trying my own hand at building a model based on my experiences living through a number of organizational leadership shifts.

And rather than tackle the problem from the enterprise level, I wanted to begin a bit smaller to get started and test my ideas out, taking the example of how a newly-hired head of a large technology organization might go about fostering collaborative leadership in their department.

The newly-hired head of a large technology group has a few key goals to achieve in the first 60-90 days (other than keeping the lights on, of course):

1. Win the support of the executive leadership of the organization
2. Win the support of IT leadership
3. Win the support of IT management
4. Win the support of IT non-managers
5. Develop an accurate understanding of the current state of the larger organization, IT, and the relation between them
6. Develop a future state vision of where the larger organization, IT, and the relation between them need to go
7. Develop a road map detailing how and when they will get there

Just about all the new CTOs, CIOs, and EVPs I’ve watched tackle these tend to group this list into three buckets and prioritize them as follows:

1. Win the support of the executive leadership of the organization
2. Develop current state, future state, and road map
3. Win the support of IT leadership, IT management, and IT non-managers

The thinking behind this, I imagine, is something like the following:

– If the executive leadership does not offer their support, the head of technology is dead in the water.
– If the current state, future state, and road map are not a success, executive leadership will withdraw their support, and the head of technology is dead in the water.
– If executive leadership is on board and the current state, future state, and road map are successful, the IT organization will tend to support the head of technology–and if they don’t, then the next 30, 60, 90 days can be focused on getting their support.

Based on this thinking, most leaders tackle winning over the executive team and developing their current state, future state, and road map by themselves: after all, their neck is on the chopping block for these tasks and they’ve been empowered to run the department as they think best. In some cases, they might bring in a past colleague or two as allies to help them, but that’s all.

There are a number of problems with this approach.

1. It establishes a culture of top down leadership, the effects of which are difficult to undo once the new technology head turns to the task of winning over the IT department.
2. It isolates the head of technology from IT executive leadership.
3. It increases the likelihood of making uninformed or impractical recommendations to executive leadership.

I imagine most IT folks have experienced the effects of these problems:

IT Leadership
– Feels left out as the new technology head gets a large amount of face time with executive leadership
– Feels out of the loop as the new technology head works on plans for the department in isolation
– Wonders what their role will be now that “ringers” are being brought in from outside

IT Management
– Takes their cues from their bosses, who are communicating (directly or indirectly) their reservations about the new technology head
– Wonders how the new technology head will understand the department well enough to make recommendations, since the people who actually do the work seem not to be involved

IT Non-managers
– Take their cues from their bosses, who are communicating (directly or indirectly) their reservations about the new technology head
– Wonder how the new technology head will understand the department well enough to make recommendations, since the people who actually do the work seem not to be involved

One potential way to sidestep some of this might be to take a unified approach to winning the support of executive leadership, developing the current state, future state, and road map, and winning the support of IT. That is, to view these as parallel activities in a single process all contributing to the ultimate goal of establishing the new technology leader successfully in their job.

In the next entry, I’ll present my first stab at an alternate approach for a technology leader’s first 60-90 days.

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