I have been asked on occasion “what is the worst thing about being a CIO or Director?” My answer is that there is no one “worst thing” and for the most part, at least for me, there are more good days than bad days. But there has been one aspect of senior/executive management that takes its toll over time and is something you have to come to grips with if you are going to remain in senior management for your career.
The one aspect I am referring to is being able to “see behind the curtain” of your organization. For those of you not young enough to remember the Wizard of Oz, the great wizard was exposed when the curtain he was hiding behind while operating his mock wizard machinery was pulled open to reveal a not-so-imposing old man.
So it is with your organization. As you climb the leadership ladder, more and more of your organizations inner workings are exposed to you. By the time you are Director/CIO you usually are privy to most all of what is happening in some fashion or another. Because you are IT, it is your job to know intricate details of how the whole organization works, and folks, sometimes it isn’t pretty.
At first, when you finally make it high enough to be allowed a view behind the curtain, it all seems fascinating and somewhat mysterious. Your eyes and ears tell you things that your mind simply doesn’t want to comprehend. Surely there was more thought placed into making that really important decision than what you just witnessed? Right? Obviously, there is some vital scrap of information that you do not have or were not made aware of that would make everything you have just seen or heard make sense – there has to be! No my friend, it doesn’t always have to be.
In fact, some of the most important decisions made by senior management are made with very little thought. Hardly shocking I know, as I am sure you have walked around wondering what kind of dolt could make a decision like that? But it’s true. Sometimes decisions are truly made by a dolt, and sometimes they’re just bad decisions made by someone who was just having an off day, or was using bad information, etc.
As an employee lower down on the proverbial career ladder, you’re actually sheltered from a great deal of information and decision-making – and sheltered is the apt term here. Someone–usually your manager–has protected you from news and information that’s not healthy for your morale. In fact, many of your managers probably work hard to make sure that you come to work in an environment that’s “fun” to be in. And by “fun,” I mean that you have the tools and resources to accomplish what’s asked of you in a manner that’s not harmful to you or causes you too much stress.
As you climb the ladder and are exposed to more of your organization, there are fewer people who shelter you from anything. You, as a senior member of management, are exposed to all the warts and pimples and, by golly, you better like it because it’s your job to deal with those warts and pimples. If you don’t like dealing with messes, you don’t need to climb the ladder. You have to like to get in there and fix things and deal with your organization in its proverbial underpants.
But this is the part that you need to deal with and the part that can make you jaded. When your days are filled with more problems than success, and when your plate never seems to empty and the decision-making that’s happening around you feels like a circus – you need to step back and realize that you’re witnessing this because you wanted to and that it’s not as bad as it seems. It is precisely because you are allowed this view behind the curtain that you are feeling the way you do.
Some folks don’t like it, or they do but only for so long. They get burned out because behind the curtain, there’s a great deal of smoke and fire. But that smoke and fire is there not just because of problems but because of opportunity. It also hopefully indicates that there is some creation going on, that the organization is being shaped and molded to enable it to be successful. Being a part of that is what makes being in senior management worth it – at least to me.
I certainly don’t want to paint a dismal picture of senior management. However, for those that think that making it up the ladder means martinis at lunch and golf in the afternoon – well, that’s not true in my business. Most of the CIOs/IT Directors I know are hard-working and thoughtful individuals who come in daily to face what’s behind the curtain. It is the challenge that gets them up in the morning and it is that same challenge that sometimes sends you home beaten and disheartened. I personally am grateful that I have had the opportunity to see and work behind the curtain for much of my career and I encourage those of you that like this sort of challenge to seek out leadership and management opportunities.