Six ways to manage your relationship with your CIO

Discussions in the TechRepublic forums often reveal strained relationships between IT staff and their managers and CIOs. Benny Sisko provides six tips for both sides of the divide to help keep relationships cordial, professional, and productive.

Management is a two way street, but the techniques used for managing down are not always the same as those used for managing upward in the organization. As a CIO, I thought I'd outline some of the things that my staff does or can do that make my life easier and, in turn, help the department to meet its myriad of objectives. I'm outlining these items in a first person/second person format. Each of these items comes after reading comments to a multitude of postings on TechRepublic and seeing some commonalities. These might come from the perspective of an idealist, but why not dream big?

Help me help you

In other words, if you have a problem that needs to be solved, bring me some possible solutions to go along with the problem. Yes, my job is to clear hurdles that get in the way of progress, but I'm not (and simply can't be) solely responsible for solving every single problem that comes through the department!

The flip side. I realize that not every problem has an immediately obvious solution and I also understand that some situations require my involvement. In these circumstances, my door is always open and I want you to come see me so that, together, we can solve the problem. That's my job; to clear hurdles and make sure that efforts can continue without impediment.

Understand the financial climate

I want you to take initiative and make independent decisions, but when you do, make sure that those decisions keep the budget in mind and keep me out of hot water. I saw a case in another company in which staffers in an IT department tried to spend close to ten thousand dollars on a solution when hundreds of dollars would have sufficed. Fortunately, in that case, the CIO caught the purchase before it was actually placed, but the impact on the budget would have been significant, and so would the political fallout as this was during a particularly difficult financial time.

The flip side. I promise to do my best to keep the IT staff current on what's going on with the organization's budget so that a clear picture is always available, providing a good decision framework. I've learned over time that the annual budget is simply a starting point for the fiscal year. Even if you have budgetary authority for a chunk of the IT budget, circumstances can change during the year, so it's important that I keep you current.

Understand the political climate and organizational priorities (i.e., the big picture)

I hate having to play favorites just as much as you do but that's life. When the CEO calls, you probably better jump unless there is something darn important keeping you away. When she calls me, I jump, too. Further, when the people from the most profitable project in the company call and need something reasonable, that's a priority! Make sure to understand where we are, where we're going and understand more than just what's happening with, for example, the network infrastructure, servers, etc.

The flip side. I will always keep you up to date with what's important and make sure the whole staff knows the company's priorities. If you had to decline support for a company priority and there was a good reason (i.e. the entire sales network was down, for example, and you needed to fix that in order to maintain the revenue stream), I'll back you every time. Why? That shows an understanding and appreciation of the big picture.

Handle the routine things without my involvement

This is related to helping me help you, but a little more specific. Don't wait for me to be around to handle the routine things; handle them yourself. If you have a question about how something should be handled, consider the task in the context of the larger priorities and with an understanding of any possible budgetary implications. I've seen a lot of people afraid to make decisions because they're worried that the boss won't like it; this is often the result of conditioning (poor management) somewhere along the line and it's a bad practice for management to get into. All it does it demotivate and demoralize people. I've also seen a lot of people push even the most minor decisions back to the boss just because it was the path of least resistance.

The flip side. Make the call for routine things and get me involved if it gets "too big" or when I really do need to make a call. If you make a decision that I don't like, I won't bite your head off. I may tell you what I would have done differently, but will make every possible attempt to do so in a positive, constructive way that doesn't make you feel "wrong" but that might help the next time around.

Argue your side of a debate or project - vehemently, if necessary

Contrary to popular belief by some, I want to hear your side of a debate and get your thoughts, concerns and insights on issues and projects. The IT staff is the group closest to IT's operations and initiatives and your insight is invaluable and incredibly important. Make sure you keep your tone and comments constructive and respectful and professional and I'll be all ears. I'll listen to you and process your information to make sure that an ultimate decision, whenever possible, includes your thoughts and addresses as many of your concerns as possible. Bu incorporating as much positive feedback as possible, we can achieve outstanding results.

The flip side. You have to listen to my reasons and thoughts on issues, too, and make an attempt to see things from my perspective. I might approach things from a different place. You probably expect (rightly) that I'll listen to you and appreciate your insight, but it goes both ways. Just like you, I know when I'm being passively ignored and, like you, I don't like it either. Make sure you appreciate my thoughts as much as you want yours valued.

Once I make a decision, get on board

This one can be the easiest or the hardest, depending on the outcome of the previous point. At some point in every effort, a decision has to be made and, ultimately, it's my responsibility to make decisions and the "final call" on things. As long as I have listened to your feedback and truly considered it, get on board with the decision that's been made and support it to the best of your efforts. Just because I make a decision that you don't agree with doesn't mean that it's a bad decision.

You should not blindly follow a leader that is making poor decisions. However, there is a difference between a poor decision and a decision with which you don't agree. If you believe that every decision with which you don't agree must be poor, there is more at play than simple disagreement. I know for a fact that I don't agree with every decision made by my CEO, but I also respect his right to make the decision -- and to face any blowback that could result.

Don't follow blindly... but there does come a point at which you need to decide if a particular issue is worth falling on your sword. If you really, really, really hate Exchange, for example, and wouldn't be able to stand to see it implemented and it's going to happen anyway, it's time to move on.

I should be able to expect that, once a decision is made, best efforts will be undertaken to support that decision to a successful conclusion. Personally, as a CIO - and as a subordinate to my CEO - I wouldn't be able to, not should I have to, accept less from my staff and neither should my CEO expect less from me.

My advice: Choose your battles wisely.

The flip side. You win some and you lose some. As stated in the previous point, I will commit to truly listening to and appreciating any and all feedback provided to me from any source - IT staff, other executives, people in other departments, customers and others. I will always clearly explain the reasons for my decisions so that everyone knows exactly why we're doing what we're doing. You don't always have to agree, but you do need to support.