Four tips for Breakthrough IT executives

For the past several years I have been advocating the concept of the "Breakthrough IT" organization, one where technology is a strategic investment that helps accomplish corporate goals and is approached with the same rigor, zeal, and expected results as any other organizational investment. I detailed the plan to establish Breakthrough IT in my first book, Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology.

Most organizations, especially in a knowledge-centric function like IT, are largely irrelevant without the right people, and this is especially true in the Breakthrough IT organization. The following four tips are from my newest book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion, which provides advice to IT practitioners on everything from time and meeting management to developing the strategic capabilities of your IT organization. Unfortunately I have found professional development opportunities lacking for those at all levels of IT, and while no book or article can substitute for a caring manager empowered structurally and financially to make his or her staff better, perhaps you will find a few nuggets of wisdom that can help you move to the next level.

Time and meeting management -- Pick up the &%$@ phone!

In many cases we have become overly reliant on e-mail, especially in IT. While e-mail is a marvelous communication medium, there are times when it is inappropriate or creates more problems than it solves. We have all seen e-mail catfights, where two parties become increasingly nasty toward each other as they discuss a problem or position, and each side CCs several additional people with each barrage. Why normally sane people engage in this type of behavior eludes me, but the solution to most of these problems is simply picking up the phone and clarifying an issue in the course of five minutes, rather than fifteen e-mails that make each party look increasingly petty or foolish.

Similarly, if you need to discuss something private or something where an e-mail might be misunderstood or misinterpreted, the old standby of the telephone is often the perfect solution. When a subordinate complains that "I e-mailed him on this two weeks ago!" a gentle reminder that a phone call is a far more appropriate solution than continuing e-mails and complaints can work wonders.

Staff and organizational development -- Hire people, not certifications

IT certifications present a compelling sales pitch: Rather than do the hard work of interviewing, assessing, and vetting candidates, look for our certification and be assured you are hiring the right person. Unfortunately, that sweet sound you hear is a siren's song that will soon have you washed up on the rocks of a poorly qualified or ineffective hire.

Hiring people is difficult work, and doing it right is the most difficult approach of all. While it's far easier to tell HR to "just send me 20 resumes with certificate X," in the long run you will either end up with 20 of the wrong resumes or, worse, end up hiring the wrong person. Rather than relying on certifications, take the time to explain to HR what aspect of a resume or CV indicates the right type of candidate for the role. Is it a particular company or industry? Is it a certain combination of management experience? Have the hiring manager talk to a couple people in your organization that you deem highly effective, to cull the criteria that will find more people like them. Lastly, hire people that demonstrate an ability to learn and adapt. While someone with the latest certification may be able to contribute on the day they are hired, should their certification become obsolete without an ability to learn, they too will effectively become obsolete.

While it may take longer, not only will hiring talent bring in a more valued contributor, but that person will likely stay with your organization and be more adaptable than the person with the latest certification.

Improving your IT shop -- "insource" commodity functions

There are likely several areas of responsibility that most IT managers have that are operational in nature and become a concern primarily when something goes wrong. These might range from helpdesk activities, to network operations. While there is usually a line manager in charge of these functions, he or she may rely heavily on you for input or, perhaps require your clearance for relatively trivial decisions. For these types of functions, consider "insourcing. " Insourcing is creating an independent internal entity that acts as a "company within the company," managing its budget and planning its operations independently within a defined set of parameters. Just as with outsourcing, where you establish service-level metrics and allow your vendor to operate largely independently within the contract you have negotiated, insourcing creates a similar relationship but uses internal employees.

Some of the key benefits are that you can create a more defined cost structure, take the task off your radar, and, perhaps most importantly, develop new leaders within IT, since they will have budgetary and operational responsibility for the area they cover. Further, insourcing can develop an entrepreneurial sense in your staff and provide many of the benefits of outsourcing while mitigating many of the negative aspects.

Strategic management -- trade in the tech terms

One of the recurring complaints of high-level IT executives is a lack of "alignment" between business and IT. Unfortunately, much of the root of this alignment problem lies with IT and its inability to relate to people outside IT on their own terms. When speaking with your counterparts outside IT, avoid the use of technical jargon and, more importantly, try to couch their problem in business terms before jumping to a technical solution. While it may be tempting to offer up the latest vendor-provided "Unified Communication Solution" when you hear that people are not talking to each other in a particular division, strive to identify business and process changes that can be accelerated through technology, not magically cured by throwing some boxes and wires at the problem.

Perhaps key to any IT practitioner's development is to keep learning, especially in areas outside technology. While today's cloud will likely be tomorrow's mainframe, time management, presentation skills, and personal development will serve you well throughout your entire career.

Should you wish to view the other 46 tips that compose The Breakthrough CIO's Companion they are available in e-book format through the link above or via Amazon's Kindle reader and Apple's iBookstore.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...


I so agree with Pick up the &%$@ phone! This is my single, largest frustration with IT people. They will not under any circumstances give out their phone, and no matter how much you beg and plead with them to call, they will not. And I totally agree that more often than not, there is increased confusion within the many emails exchanged, and often increased frustration with the parties involved. A simple 5 minute phone call would solve so many issues.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

incipient, new born or established in the job. Listen to your people not people who will pander to your prejudices... One day someone will explain to me why lack of alignment isn't lack of competent management, in both the IT and business domains. What do CEOS do, say oh look they are still not aligned, ho hum? I implement the tech you asked for in the time you allotted with the funds you made available, if at all possible. I told you it was wank, but you are in charge and obviously know better. More what and when, less how based on some Gartner bumf, or the last slap up freebie meal from a vendor. It's not rocket science.


actually speak to someone? WOW, what a concept!! Hiring right? It's the whole pkg--certs and personal skills BTW it's "people WHO" not people "that" Who is for humans.


For any of this to happen, the stranglehold of entrenched pretence ( " we are a profit-driven business " ) will need to be broken There is no likelihood of this whatsoever, until IT development itself becomes once again the prime driving force, and its promulgation replaces profitability controls over the industry's very existence Profit can readily be made by underhand means, & the books can be cooked to make a business look OK to its formal scrutineers - with their tacit approval - so it's not a reliable index of commercial soundness IT devt. depends on good programming, the right hardware, very good people, & freedom to do the job, without stringpulling skewing the business profile, to please manipulators in high places If we can regain control of our own industry, right & true human values will, once again, reappear, quite naturally, without interference from so-called managers, who can't by threats, or by promises they won't be allowed to keep, put things right, as they stand.


"If we can regain control of our own industry..." Leszek, you hit the nail on the head. I don't know how long you've been in IT, but I've been doing this 30 years now, and I remember thinking years ago that we (our profession) had finally been recognized for our potential when companies began adding CIO and CTO positions to their executive rosters. Unfortunately, most of the people filling these roles are glorified accountants, bookkeepers, and auditors, or worse yet, new still-wet-behind-the-ears MBA grads. Rarely, if ever, do you see anybody in this role that actually came up through the ranks in IT - operator, programmer, analyst, architect - and spent any time in any of those roles developing any real skill. Consequently, instead of championing IT and lobbying for an increased role for technology in strategic planning, CIOs and CTOs have fallen into the lame and predictable pattern of head count reduction, outsourcing, offshoring, and whatever else they can do to cut short term costs. They have, in many ways, created the environment today where a cert carries the same weight as ten years of experience, where technical skill is regarded as a commodity to be bought at auction for the lowest possible cost. We do need to regain control of our industry, but regrettably I have no idea how to accomplish that.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

the business heads with that sort of talk. A lot of them still remember when those in power spent the entire development budget on new gadgets so the could do the job more effectively, once they got them working.... The sort of tossers who bought into that garbage, who've survived through losing well at golf and having an attractive hair do, now have tenure, as IT managers.... I have hope on the devlopment front, because things like Cloud and SaaS leave no viable option except to do the job properly. Look at how many Saas inititaives have failed, because the nutjobs in charge thought it was just moving monolithic crud apps about...

Editor's Picks