I just finished reading an article on the top 100 CIOs deemed “transformers” who changed their organizations through IT. The purpose of the article, besides recognizing these accomplishments, was to gather lessons learned from those CIOs. You are probably already familiar with them — closer integration with the customer, becoming one with the business, becoming more agile and responsive, etc. Shall I go on?

I commend all the CIOs for their work. I also commend all those hard working CIOs who achieved equally laudable accomplishments but did not take the time to enter themselves or have others point out their merits. To you I raise my cup (pick your favorite beverage) and salute you.

The lesson that I draw from the article is that these leaders (both the recognized and unrecognized) are savvy enough to gauge what their particular organization needs (not just wants) and then are able to muster the resources and support to move the organization towards meeting those needs.

I’ve found that a large measure of the success in changing an organization is in the sheer will of IT management to make things happen; it is also part luck in having the right set of senior managers in place or having the right set of circumstances to draw upon. Now, keep in mind that part of that luck is actually how skillful the CIO can navigate organizational politics and sway decision making. Yet, sheer dumb luck almost always plays a part.

For example, if you are the CIO that follows in the wake of a massive security breach or a failed ERP implementation, you will find the purse strings considerably loosened compared to your predecessor and people will be far more willing to “cooperate” than they were before. Sometimes timing is everything. It is then that you might find the new CIO on the cover of a magazine next to a tag line announcing “created tightest security ever” or “turned around bleeding project.” I’m not taking anything away from those CIOs because they obviously had to work to accomplish those things and perhaps their predecessors were even incompetent, but there also may be a file full of memos from the former CIO begging for funds, predicting failure, and being ignored. As I have always said, I love cleaning up messes because even if you step into a huge pile of stink, you can come out smelling like a rose.

I don’t want to overlook those CIOs who accomplished change through sheer determination to make something happen. Those are the CIOs who recognized the need, communicated it, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Often no comes in the form of a lack of funds, not a denial of the need, and those are the situations most ripe with opportunity.

It is at these times that CIOs can be at their most creative, working with their management team and staffs to brainstorm about how they can accomplish something significant on a shoestring. That creativity can be expressed in a variety of ways: finding new funding, striking new alliances and partnerships, negotiating, re-engineering processes, changing practices, etc. One example of being creative with your resources is in not filling “vacancies.” Having a large staff that is not skilled enough to take the organization where it needs to go is no benefit. I have always been a believer in a small amount of well-paid, highly competent employees compared to an army of poorly paid, underskilled workers.

There is no silver bullet approach for assured success, and often there are several correct approaches to filling a need. If there is anything close to a guaranteed strategy for being a “transformer,” it is to be aware, be flexible, be willing to ask why, and be determined to make changes.

Lastly, while the majority of this essay has been directed at the CIO level, all of it is applicable at any level. Leadership and the ability to create change are not limited to C-level positions or even management, for that matter. There are leaders at all levels and in fact, many of the skills that C-level executives employ to create organizational change were honed as they worked up the food chain, creating change at the team level, unit level, division level, department level, and finally at the organizational level.

As I wrote last week, there are no shortages of leadership opportunities in any organization, but you have to be prepared to take advantage of them. Don’t worry about who gets the credit, just make something happen. It is in the process of doing so that you will gain the knowledge to handle any challenge placed in front of you. And at the end of the day, your satisfied look in the mirror is what really counts. The recognition will come along — perhaps not at the organization you are with now, but it will. More importantly, you will be ready for that higher level position when the time comes.

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