CIO as Superhero?

Sometimes Superman and Wonder Woman could use some help. It's the same with CIOs.

by / July 9, 2007
CIO as Superhero?

The joke goes that CIO stands for "career is over." Though that may be a little extreme, serving as a public-sector IT leader is a tough job. We often become superheroes, trying to do everything for everyone and swooping in to save the day. This approach often leads to disenchantment, discontentment, burnout, lack of focus and waning organizational support. Consider just a few well known superheroes, and you quickly realize that their lives aren't all glory and adulation.

Many public-sector IT leaders -- even men -- become Wonder Woman CIOs, flying here and there, trying to rescue everyone.

The upside to being a Wonder Woman CIO is that the customers you "save" love you -- until, that is, the time comes when you can't meet an unreasonable demand.

The downside to this approach is that while Wonder Woman CIOs may be doing many things, they're not doing any of them well due to lack of focus and bandwidth.

Superman CIOs also swoop in just in time to set things right. While Superman CIOs have the same issues as Wonder Woman CIOs, these IT leaders must also contend with their own version of kryptonite.

After dealing with disgruntled staff, renegade users, poor leadership, shifting priorities or dwindling support, Superman CIOs are soon sapped of energy and become ineffective.

As with a current popular superhero, Spider-Man, people love to hate the public-sector CIO. They may love the results of your efforts, but they hate the way technology brings change and upheaval to their environment. These CIOs may save the day, but they are often overworked and underappreciated.

Their dedication remains, however, sometimes to the point of straining health or relationships. Spider-Man CIOs often find themselves thinking of leaving it all behind.

By now, you are probably both identifying with this assessment and wondering what a public-sector CIO can do to thrive in this tough environment. I asked my colleagues for their input and assembled a list. We came up with the following seven suggestions.

1. Find where you fit in. Though this suggestion works best if you are considering a position in another organization, you may also wish to ask yourself this question if you are dissatisfied with your current position and want to know why.

Consider whether you prefer to fix things in a broken environment or maintain the status quo, making incremental changes in a less dramatic manner. Are you the tortoise or the hare? Slow and steady may win the race, but some organizations need rapid improvements. Should you keep your head down and do your job? Or does your organization's leadership expect you to be on the cover of a CIO magazine and a frequent conference speaker who jets around the globe?

Even your ethical approach should match. Are you more comfortable going by the book? Or are you happy "working a deal" to get things done? Finding a good fit or being willing to "fit in" is the foundation for success.

2. Speak the same language. First, work hard to learn the language of the business through ride- or work-alongs, getting out into the organization, and continuing your education, such as obtaining a degree in public administration.

Next, share technology language with your leadership, colleagues and customers by providing them with a glossary of IT terms. Call it an "Executive Glossary" or whatever it takes to catch their attention and ensure they will at least glance at it.

Finally eliminate the "geek speak" and steer clear of acronyms. If your nontechie spouse, friend or child can understand what you're saying, you've got it. If not, work on it.

3. Align IT with the business of government. Though "IT and business alignment" is an overused phrase, the process remains fundamental to success. Even if your organization doesn't have a written plan, you can determine what's important by following the money or press. Find out which departments and/or programs are receiving funding, especially increases, and which ones aren't. Also, look for programs or topics in your organization that are in the news or discussed at meetings on a consistent basis.

4. Gain control by giving it away. Establishing IT governance up front is the No. 1 thing I would do over in my career. IT governance is crucial to a CIO's sanity. Though there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to governance, it's worth the time and effort to determine what will work best in your organization. With governance comes ownership. Try to eliminate IT projects by focusing on functional projects with IT components.

5. Manage demand. By its very nature, having the governance body prioritize projects and allocate resources results in managed expectations. Even if everyone doesn't agree with the results, the governance process leads to development of a clear list of projects on which IT can focus its efforts and resources.

Another byproduct of the process is that the CIO no longer has to say no; instead he or she simply refers requestors to the governance body.

6. It's who you know. Cultivate relationships at all levels in the organization and organize an internal cheering section. This requires that many CIOs move beyond their comfort zone of managing technology into the worlds of politics and marketing, but there is safety -- and success -- in numbers. Don't stand alone. Also, identify and use the internal grapevine to spread good gossip.

7. It's what you know. At the end of the day, successful CIOs deliver. With that said, we all know CIOs who we believe are doing a good job by our standards, but lack support from their organization and leadership. What causes this disconnect? Many CIOs find that once they're hired, they move from being a solution provider to being part of the problem.

Others understand that they're seldom prophets in their own land. Both cases may require bringing in outside experts to confirm your recommendations or affirm what you're doing. This solution requires setting aside your ego and the "I already know what to do" attitude and accepting human nature, especially the risk-averse nature of most public-sector organizations.

Serving as a public-sector CIO is a demanding, sometimes exhausting job. Though comic book superheroes often battle alone, the CIO superhero doesn't have to. We do have ways to cope and even thrive. I hope these suggestions help make the job more fulfilling.


Liza Lowery Massey served in the public sector nearly 20 years as an IT executive before leaving to establish the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. In addition, Massey is an adjunct professor in the College of Business for the Executive MBA program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Massey's work in the public sector includes stints as CIO of Los Angeles and as executive director of San Francisco's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services. In 2004, she was recognized nationally in the Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of IT in Government Technology magazine.


Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas