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The seven habits of wildly unsuccessful CIOs

You've read all about what to do to be good at your job. Take a look at what practices can seal your fate in the opposite direction.


It's not easy to become a wildly unsuccessful CIO or CTO. But with just a bit of shortsightedness, an over-inflated ego, and absolutely no business sense, even the most ambitious person can realize this corporate nightmare. TechRepublic asked around to find out how this can be done. What we found are the seven habits of wildly unsuccessful CIOs.

1. Acquire technology simply because it's new
That's how corporate coach and Leadership Decisionworks founder Stever Robbins described this quirk found in CIOs who aim low and get there. "I'm talking about CIOs who upgrade because it's time to upgrade," Robbins said. When this habit manifests itself in this way, the unsuccessful CIO fails to realize there are sound business reasons to upgrade, such as:
  • Cost
  • Benefits to the company
  • Overcoming data compatibility issues

This habit also turns up in CIOs who try to find a way to work the latest technology into their businesses because they're interested in that technology, not because it makes good business sense, said Mike Nikolich, president and CEO of Tech Image, a PR firm that serves the hi-tech industry. "They find a good gadget and they think it'll be great because it's really cool and novel," Nikolich said.

By contrast, the successful CIO will have a sound business reason to upgrade. Robbins referred to the CIO of a large financial institution who was noted for running a low-cost, desktop environment for the network's users. Robbins said he asked him what operating system was loaded on all the workstations' computers. When the CIO indicated it was an older Windows operating system, Robbins said he asked if it were Windows 98 or even 95. "And he said, 'Every desktop in the building runs Windows 3.1,'" Robbins recalled.

He said the CIO pointed out upgrading would be expensive, that the older operating system suited the company's needs, and that all the data input and exchanged in the organization could be processed in Windows 3.1. "The minute someone can make a compelling business case to upgrade, then I'll upgrade," Robbins quoted this CIO.

2. Exhibit a knee-jerk reaction against open source
"This is one that, if you mention it, will probably give you some grief," warned Testa. "But I think it's worth mentioning."

The most unsuccessful CIO is unwilling to consider open source software, at least on some systems, Testa said. For instance, Apache is largely considered to be the superior Web server and many successful CIOs will house this in their otherwise largely Windows or Novell shops. "Some open source software, like Linux, makes a lot of sense for a lot of organizations," Testa said.

This sense, however, is lost on the unsuccessful CIO. "Some CIOs and CTOs instantly say that if it's free, it's no good," Testa said.

3. Create solutions in search of a problem
Any problem that arises is handled, always, in-house. Always. "They think that what they do is so absolutely special that nothing off the shelf could fill their needs," said Scott Testa, Chief Operations Officer for Mindbridge, a leading provider of Enterprise Intranet Software solutions.

"They expend a lot of energy looking for a solution that could have been bought right off the shelf," Testa said. These same CIOs often are not open to other vendors or anyone else "who may have other ways of solving certain problems," Testa said.

The CIO with this habit also will build products or provide services because they can, not because the company, or anyone else, needs them, explains Nikolich, who said this is the classic "solution looking for a problem" syndrome. The CIO or someone in his department develops a product to sell either in-house or on the open market. It dazzles the IT department.

But no one needs it.

This hardly reflects well on the IT department, which can lose quite a bit of credibility with the other non-IT departments and personnel. This can spell smaller budgets and work staff. However, that isn't the only reason this CIO is unsuccessful. This habit also is a very expensive one. Their solutions cost more time to develop and produce. Those same "solutions" could well be abandoned a short time later if a higher C-level employee gets wind of a better way—or even a worse way—if the in-house solution is genuinely a bad idea.

4. Eagerly reach beyond competency level
It's one thing to know how to match good tech sense with good business sense. It's quite another to expect the company to be driven by technology instead of supported by it and to expect other powers in the organization to believe it with equal firmness. "When the tech end overshadows the business end of a venture, then trouble begins to arise, especially when one won't take into account how technical decisions can limit strategic options," Robbins said.

This is especially prevalent in smaller organizations where a C-level employee will cover many jobs. For instance, a CIO may well be expected to maintain the network, develop the company Web site, and write code. Nikolich recalled a CIO who sat in on marketing meetings, "not to be an impediment, but to be a great benefit." A successful CIO knows how to spread his or her skills around a company and become a great resource, something that, in turn, reflects well on the company.

By contrast, the wildly unsuccessful CIO doesn't know when to quit and wanders into areas beyond her or his competency, Nikolich said. He cited an example of a CIO who insinuated himself into a multimedia presentation the company's marketing group was developing. "And then what should have taken three months took seven months," Nikolich recalled. "And, really, it was completed because they found a way to get him out of it."

The better than unsuccessful CIO can make great contributions to the company, Nikolich said. "They can be tremendous spokespeople and can be one of the company's greatest assets," he explained. "But they need to always remember to get back to doing what they do best, and that's their own job."

5. Act as CMOs—Chief Marketing Officers
CIOs who indulge in this habit not only develop products and solutions no one wants, they also think they know better than marketing how to sell, well, anything. They also are prone to thinking products sell themselves, Robbins said. This just isn't true.

However, believing it is can lead to several problems that could, in their worst manifestations, bring down a company, Robbins said. Real sales and marketing can "grind to a halt due to anemic staffing and budgeting," he said. This is "fine when the economy is hot," Robbins pointed out, but "devastating when battling for a sliver of shrinking markets."

6. Fail to understand relationship between technology and business
"This is critical," Robbins said. "Being able to understand how technology and business can work together to promote the company's goals and objectives should be the greatest value the CIOs and CTOs can offer to the company. Because he's the only one who can do it."

And the key to understanding how technology and business can work together is to understand the company's highest-priority goal, Robbins said. "The goal of business is not technology," he said. "It's not to develop new technology. That goal is to make money."

Robbins pointed to a decision Victoria's Secret made concerning its Web site. He said he knew a woman who wanted to purchase lingerie online. She headed to Victoria's Secret's Web site, but found the browser she used didn't work at the site. She was disappointed, and Robbins figured Victoria's Secret should also have been disappointed because the would-be customer had planned to spend $400.

"I happen to know the CTO of Victoria's Secret," Robbins said. "So I called him up and talked to him about this." Robbins said what this CTO told him was a surprise. The CTO had investigated whether to try to make its Web site friendlier to this browser and soon found that the company would never make enough money to justify the effort. "They know they're alienating some customers," he said.

However, the Web site does welcome the more popular browsers, so they know what they might be losing in sales will be more than offset by the money they didn't spend and the money they will make, Robbins said. In other words, just because you can use technology to make something expensive happen doesn't mean you should. Wildly unsuccessful CIOs never grasp this.

7. Don't communicate well with nontechs
"They forget that most people just don't get technology," Robbins said.

What is worse, unsuccessful CIOs often hire other techs with this same very bad habit, Robbins said. "If you don't hire technology people who can communicate with nontechnology people, or they don't train people to communicate with nontechnology people, then you miss a great opportunity to prove your department's worth to the company," he said. "In my mind, you need to couple the ability to provide value and communicate that value as a whole."

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