Leadership in the Balance

If CIOs want to reverse their declining role in the public sector, they must spend more time leading and less time managing.

by , / August 11, 2004
"Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another; it is the only means." -- Albert Einstein

The role of the public-sector CIO is in decline.

Why? Because CIOs have not struck a proper balance between leadership and management. Most CIOs spend their time managing when leadership should consume 80 percent of their efforts. Hampered by a lack of leadership training, an unwillingness to take risks and simply not knowing when to lead, most CIOs today fall back on their managerial role to get them through.

To shift the balance back, public-sector CIOs must understand the behavioral difference between leadership and management. Although both involve getting people to do something purposeful in an organization, there is a critical difference. Management is based on authority. Managers can give an organization direction because they hold a position of power, and public-sector CIOs have the authority to guide the activities of the IT organization in their jurisdiction.

Leadership, on the other hand, is based on influence. CIOs who lead can direct the organization because they convince people certain activities are the right thing to do, and people want to follow that kind of guidance. The public CIO must exercise influence inside and outside the organization to ensure the right things are done for government and citizens.

Good CIOs act as both leaders and managers. But knowing when to behave as leader and when to act as manager -- especially in the complex world of government IT -- isn't easy. By breaking down the major responsibilities of public-sector CIOs and understanding the differences between leader and manager for each of those responsibilities, IT executives can bring a balance to their jobs that will enhance and solidify their role.

IT Assessments: Opportunities and Threats
CIOs must analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing their jurisdictions. When assessing strengths and weaknesses, CIOs look internally at government functions. For opportunities and threats, CIOs look externally at environmental factors to take advantage of or solve. These assessments are crucial to staying viable in our constantly changing environment.

The management side of IT assessment focuses on building strengths while eradicating weaknesses. Val Ovesen earned the informal title of "Pied Piper of the Dissidents" when he was Utah's state tax commissioner because he encouraged risk-taking among workers there. "I would go into a work area and stand up on a chair or desk, and I would call everyone's attention with a little bugle," he said. "Then I would talk about someone in the organization that had taken a chance, whether that person had succeeded or not." By highlighting examples of risk-taking, Ovesen encouraged people to take chances and built up the commission's risk-taking strengths.

When it comes to leadership, however, CIOs must identify and capitalize on an organization's opportunities while identifying and addressing threats, such as smaller IT budgets and security concerns, in the environment. This outwardly focused endeavor calls for CIOs to stay abreast of the latest technologies and their applications, learn from the best -- and worst -- practices of other organizations, monitor the political environment, and understand the needs of the citizens and other governmental organizations they serve.

Governance: Building the Right Board
The state of Washington's Department of Information Services (DIS) has received both national and international recognition for developing and sustaining IT and digital government services. Much of that success can be attributed to the department's effective IT governance model.

The DIS Information Services Board is both engaged and viable, and its membership closely mirrors what we consider an ideal public-sector IT board: the elected leader's chief of staff as chair, with all lines of business represented and the CIO serving as a board member. The governance board should set enterprise priorities and oversee major IT projects, and this configuration provides an effective forum for resolving differences and priorities.

The CIO's leadership role is to help establish the board and recruit members who actively participate and enable the IT organization. CIOs must also use leadership to explain to line-of-business managers why their participation is important. Because IT is seen as a service, CIOs must demonstrate IT's value and return on investment in terms of dollars and time. Once that case has been made, business managers will want to participate because of the opportunity to influence IT resource allocation.

The CIO's management role is to facilitate the running of the board. The CIO must ensure the board spends time on priorities, policies and issues, not on details of various IT projects. CIOs should facilitate aggressively to ensure the board stays on track and makes the right decisions concerning IT capabilities and projects.

Resource Investment Planning: Negotiating Priorities
While the governance board establishes priorities and objectives, it's up to the CIO to align resources and people to achieve them. Otherwise known as resource investment planning, it is a major responsibility for CIOs. Having evaluation criteria is key to doing it correctly. Steve Kolodney, former CIO of Washington state, ran the DIS like a business using evaluation criteria, such as revenue per full-time employee and cost per unit of DIS service, to measure how well his department met board objectives.

He established more than 90 cost centers -- each with its own revenue and expense targets -- required quarterly performance reports and allocated budgets based on how well the centers met those targets. Resource investment planning lets CIOs more easily measure performance against a set of prioritized objectives and discuss the results with peers, such as other board members and department directors.

In leading the planning process, CIOs must negotiate the organization's priorities with their manager and peers. It's not easy because conflicts easily arise during this process. "We are drawing out where we have disagreements or disconnects on priorities for the organization," explained Michigan CIO Teresa Takai. "For example, we may have a senior manager who wants to go in one direction and an infrastructure team who want to go in another. We need to bring that into the open and flesh it out." As a leader, the public-sector CIO must vigilantly highlight conflicting priorities and strive to resolve them efficiently and effectively.

Once priorities are negotiated, the CIO must turn to his or her managerial skills to implement them. That means aligning resources, resolving issues as they arise and ensuring the department follows healthy project management practices. It also means monitoring a "stop" list of items that aren't part of the defined plan. Unfortunately stop lists are hard to implement because the public sector feels it must serve every citizen.

Communication: Stopping the Rumor Mill
Management doesn't communicate enough. It's a common complaint with sometimes ugly consequences. If employees feel they are left in the dark, the rumor mill tends to fill the void. Beyond communicating more, CIOs also must understand who their audience is -- peers or employees -- and tailor their message to each group. Sometimes the problem is not the message, but to whom it is given and how. For example, closing a service department requires one type of message for the governance board and another for employees.

Utah's Val Ovesen said he avoids formality when addressing peers. "I rely on informal communication, relationships, telephone calls and informal types of meetings to get my messages across to my peers," he said. Besides communicating across an organization by keeping business managers informed about important decisions, CIOs must lead by communicating up to leadership so they have the information required to support IT when needed.

Some argue that communicating down to employees is another leadership role, but it's really a managerial function. The audience that most needs information (to keep the rumor mill closed down) tends to look to their chain of command for the information. They need to understand how changes in the organization will affect them directly or indirectly.

Sometimes communications must be delivered differently for different audiences. Michigan's Takai said she is a great believer in face-to-face and one-on-one communications. "When we have a major organizational change, we go out and touch people directly. We use large town-hall-style meetings to walk through the change and answer individual questions."

Takai also uses a communications technique called "cascading," where the executive team carries the message to their respective managers who, in turn, explain it to their subordinates and so on, allowing each layer of employees to hear the message face-to-face. A third technique is a monthly letter to employees to keep them updated on progress and issues. "Finally we have an intranet site for employees that is constantly updated with information. And all four approaches are integrated," she said.

Politics: How Work Actually Gets Done
For many reasons, the word "politics" has a negative connotation. But politics are an organization's arteries because that's how work gets done. While every government has an organizational chart, and written policies and procedures, these documents don't necessarily describe how work actually gets done, how decisions are made, who is more influential in some areas, who your allies are in getting work done and who your dissenters are.

A CIO's leadership role in politics is analyzing an organization's politics and determining what relationships will help build success. For example, knowing where a governor or mayor stands on a certain program can help the CIO negotiate improvements to a related IT system.

When it comes to managing politics, a CIO's role is to use those relationships to get things done. If a CIO believes a major tax system upgrade is necessary, the CIO should make special efforts to get feedback from the governor and his or her staff, keep them in the communication loop and check in to get feedback and stay abreast of issues that arise.

Change: Transforming and Institutionalizing
CIOs can identify needed changes within their organization when they link assessments with a clear set of priorities. As leaders, they must negotiate and communicate the changes' effects on IT projects to the enterprise. CIOs also must ensure all stakeholders' expectations are properly met. The CIO's managerial responsibility is to implement change initiatives and keep the organization focused throughout the process. It's not an easy task, especially with projects that take months or years to implement.

Once transformation is under way, CIOs must negotiate the breakdown of the old system as the new one takes over. This requires leadership to deal with what Todd Sander, CIO of Tucson, Ariz., calls the "Diane phenomenon," named after a worker who helped run the old system for decades. "We had an expert system in the city manager's office. She was 60 years old, her name was Diane and she had been here for 30 years," explained Sander, who said it was his job to figure out how to capture Diane's knowledge and develop a system to make her expertise available throughout the enterprise.

From the management perspective, CIOs institutionalize change by making sure the old system goes away. They not only must ensure that Diane's role disappears, but they also must make the organization aware that Diane has been replaced and ensure that the organization knows what has replaced her.

Performance: What Gets Measured Gets Done
The transformation and institutionalization of change isn't complete without measuring the performance of the people within the organization. Identifying appraisal standards, completing performance appraisals, providing performance feedback and rewarding performance accordingly are all part of performance management.

The CIO's leadership role is to identify standards for managing performance and instill a culture where raising the bar on performance is accepted by all stakeholders, so skills and expectations increase year by year. If an organization today has employees performing marginally, who are unwilling to grow with the organization, then a leader should enable them to work elsewhere.

Wearing his manager hat, the CIO implements reward systems for meeting new performance standards and provides necessary feedback to workers. It's not easy, however. As a manager, CIOs tend to spend 80 percent of their time with the bottom 20 percent of the performers in an organization. A good performance management system can reverse that trend.

Vantage Point
In 1999, the Y2K crisis provided CIOs with an opportunity to lead government to a place no one had been before. After Y2K, many CIOs did not have the ability or opportunity to propose the next journey, according to Sander. CIOs simply cannot afford to miss more opportunities, otherwise their role will continue to diminish. The CIO has a unique vantage point to see and work across the government enterprise. It is incumbent upon them to balance leadership and management skills while exercising them for the next journey that will transport government to the next level in serving this country's citizens.

Mark W. Struckman is the vice president of research at the Center for Digital Government. His research focuses on opportunities for government to impact service delivery and cost structures through business process development.

Christie Struckman, Ph.D., is a principal at Kennedy and Associates LLC, a consulting organization that specializes in resource investment planning, leadership development and organizational change for public-sector organizations. She is also a professor at San Jose State University.