Technology, IT Performance

Leading when you are not in control

Blog-post by, ,

“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.”  -John C. Maxwell

 I recently had the opportunity to read Gartner’s Predicts 2012:Four Forces Combine to Transform the IT Landscape in which they predict that four forces, cloud computing, social media and social networking, mobility and “big data” or information management will wrestle control of IT spending, and with it control of the IT environment, away from IT.  Any of these four forces would represent a significant challenge to the traditional IT world but the combination represents the potential for what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen calls “disruptive innovation.”  Disruptive innovations start small but quickly grow and, usually catching traditional competitors by surprise, disrupt and transform the marketplace or industry.  Some notable examples include (booksellers), iTunes (music distribution) and digital photography (just look at Kodak today!).  I believe that the four areas described above combined with the overall trend towards the “consumerization” of IT has the potential to completely disrupt IT as we know it.  Sadly, many CIOs will ignore this trend and, in the tradition of Kodak ,who even though they invented digital photography, couldn’t let go of the film business and now face bankruptcy, will face irrelevance.

IT folks like control.  We thrive on standards, rigid governance processes, methodologies and architectures.  These disruptors have the potential to upend all of these.  The challenge for CIOs and other IT leaders will increasingly become how to lead in the absence of direct control. 

We have faced these challenges before but usually on a smaller scale and frequently with poor outcomes.  Allow me a few examples.

How many IT organizations resisted personal computers when they first became widely available in the 1980s?  How many resisted linking these PCs through local area networks?  Quite a few, only to loose credibility and have to then accept the PCs employees snuck into the company and the LANs employees installed on their own without help from “MIS” as it was called in those days.

In the late 80s a program called Chem Draw was released for the Macintosh that allowed chemists to draw perfect organic structures complete with correct bonding, calculated molecular weights and all of the other things organic chemists love.  “No Macs” said IT groups in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, only to have dozens of the lunch box shaped devices show up in labs disguised as mass spectrometers or other forms of laboratory equipment.  Apple Talk networks soon followed.  Employees, especially smart ones, are very resourceful. 

In the mid-90s I was recruited to a large pharmaceutical company in the northeast to turn around a badly floundering IT group whose leader had just been fired.  At this time a large number of R&D IT heads were loosing their jobs in the pharma industry and, determined to not share their fate, I conducted an informal survey to see if I could sort out what was happening.  It turns out that three technologies, combinatorial chemistry, high throughput screening of compounds and genomics, all heavily IT-dependent, were revolutionizing pharmaceutical research.  The dearly departed IT leaders simply couldn’t cope with the changes they needed to make in order to exploit these.  I didn’t make that mistake.

If today’s CIOs are to successfully cope with this new wave of disrupters they will need to learn to lead through influence, not positional or organizational control.   I believe that this will require, at a minimum, four competencies.

Technical Proficiency

Get your own house in order first.  If your company is having to continuously deal with outages, missed deadlines, budget overruns and poor service, you can forget having influence.  Get your organization in order.  This is a prerequisite for everything else.

Second, CIOs and their people need to thoroughly understand these new technologies.   Stock answers about security, reliability, or “not fitting into our architecture” simply won’t cut it.  If there are problems and risks these need to be well understood, clearly articulated, and presented with viable options.  There is no room for being lazy.  Do the research and due diligence.  Be the experts.

Translational Skills

Instead of hiding behind a wall of acronyms and techno-speak, CIOs who want to be influencers must learn to be effective translators.  One of the most valuable traits a CIO can possess is to be able to translate complex technical concepts into relevant and easy to understand language.  I am fortunate to be good at this.  It served me well during my career as a CIO and generates a surprising amount of consulting work.  This is one of the top areas I am asked to work with my executive coaching clients on.

Change Leadership

Leading change is perhaps one of the most important competencies for executives today regardless of their field.  For CIOs, who are always at the forefront of change, this skill is critical.  CIOs need to be part of the solution, not the problem and to do so requires both comfort with disruptive change and competence in leading others through it. If you need help start by reading John Kotter’s classic Leading Change. It remains the best book on the subject I have ever read and his eight step process works.


Too often IT organizations, and their leaders, are characterized by a form of “IT groupthink” characterized by caution, risk-aversion, obsession with control and a “we can’t do that here” attitude.  I have seen this to one degree or another in almost every IT organization I have dealt with.  Innovators don’t think that way and CIOs and their organizations will need to innovate if they are to influence.  Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen have written about the Innovator’s DNA, which consists of five skills:

Questioning -allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities 

Observing -innovators detect small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things.

Experimenting -they relentlessly try on new experiences and explore the world.

Networking  with individuals from diverse backgrounds, they gain radically different perspectives.

Thinking- the four patterns of action together help innovators associate to cultivate new insights.

CIOs  and their key staff will need to cultivate these skills in order to stay ahead of the rapid changes ahead.

John C. Maxwell in his classic on leadership The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership said this about influence.

“True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated.  It must be earned.  The only thing a title can buy is a little time- either to increase your level of influence with others or to undermine it.”



(3) (3)

Would you like to comment on this content? Log in or Register.
Martin Davis 131 Points | Sat, 01/28/2012 - 12:48
Joel, another fantastic and thought provoking post and a slightly different take on my blogt from a few weeks ago on the more traditional characteristics of good CIOs ( Totally agree with your comment on Leading Change (coincidentally I am just working on a 3 part post on that very subject and Kotter is a key part of it). I note with interest that your post is far more technology focussed and far less about business. So I would add Business Acumen to the list and define it as the ability to help the business understand the opportunities these innovations and disrupters can provide them with.
Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Sat, 01/28/2012 - 14:14

Hello Martin,


Yes, this one is a bit different with more technology focus.  In the past, understanding the inner workings of networks, operating systems and the like was what we thought about when we talked about technical skills.  I believe in the future as these things become commodities and are purchased as services the technology aspect of the job will become more about spotting and exploiting innovative technologies and putting them to use.  Because these evolve so quickly, competitive advantages will be short-lived because fast followers will be able to quickly imitate what you have done. This will make the CIO job an exciting one, as they will really be at the forefront of competition.


Look forward to your posts on leading change.


Martin Davis 131 Points | Sat, 01/28/2012 - 14:16
Agree, an increasingly exciting world and those CIOs that do not change to embrace it will be history.
Paul Calento 255 Points | Mon, 01/23/2012 - 19:41

One thing that is overlooked by many is that there is a distinction between management (the process) and leadership (the intangible). The "control" that is so often associated with IT is a "management" staple. But "loss of control" is atypical and highly valued. With IT taking on a new urgency or renewed emphasis on agility, we need more leaders. But the question is, will it come from today's CIOs or their subordinates (i.e. the CIOs in waiting)?

--Paul Calento

(note: I work on projects sponsored by and HP)

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Mon, 01/23/2012 - 21:55

Hello Paul,

Well said.  I think there is another option-" Will they come from outside of traditional IT?"  Bill Laberis posted a video recently that addressed the increase in the number of CIOs reporting to CFOs, a reversal of a previous trend.  The next incarnation of this trend could be the CIO role disappearing completely and IT reporting to another executive. I think this may be a real danger for "head-in-the-sand" type CIOs who don't respond well to the changing world.



John Dodge 1535 Points | Tue, 01/24/2012 - 15:00

This is a really good post, Joel, and a warning to CIOs. I also think it answers the question whether a CIO needs to stay abreast of technology trends. Of course they do so they won't do something as dumb as reject PCs, Macs, networks and now, perhaps, tablets and personal smart phones.

I spent years fighting IT and had some success (one thing I never won on was the no download rule and impracticably small e-mail inbox that would shutdown when you exceeded some idiotic limit). But I never had the weapons that end users enjoy today.... 



Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Thu, 01/26/2012 - 02:24

Precisely!  Staying on top of technology trends means doing the hard work of due diligence to understand the risks, benefits and potential of new technologies. Approaching every technological innovation with an open mind, a spirit of curiosity and by asking the question, “Can we exploit this to make us a better organization” is the stuff leading CIOs are made of.


John Dodge 1535 Points | Thu, 01/26/2012 - 14:32

"...spirit of curiosity..." Great turn of phrase, Joel. I think that really captures what I meant when I urged to CIOs to experiment with Twitter....


Pearl Zhu 90 Points | Wed, 01/18/2012 - 17:18

Hi, Joe, another great CIO leadership post, well, through numerous discussion about CIO's potential roles: business srategist, technology visionary, cost cutter, chief integration offier, chief influencer, here you also add the translater, change agent, with cloud/mobil/social/big data as four pillars, the contemprary CIO should and would lead more radical changes and framework the instant on, modern business via the timely technology and methodology. thanks. 

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Fri, 01/20/2012 - 15:35

Thanks Pearl,


The next few years will be challenging ones for CIOs.  Some will rise to the challenge but, sadly, I fear that many will not be able to deal with the disruptions that will confront them.



Kathy Barboriak 1 Point | Tue, 01/17/2012 - 17:18

Great post. I remember those chemists and their Macs! They couldn't understand why something they'd come to rely on in school was denied them once they got their first job. After the first Mac order accidentally got past the purchasing dept, they were home free...and IT inherited a dual-platform environment.

Here in higher ed IT, our clients for the most part can vote with their feet any time we don't offer what they need. Even so, the four forces you mentioned are requiring us to work differently, especially since so often, the technology isn't of our choosing. I work every day to build a reputation as a trusted partner who is all about furthering our mission in flexible ways - and those translation skills you mentioned are key.

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 01/17/2012 - 17:31

Hello Kathy!  It is great to hear from you. (I had the good sense to hire Kathy 20+ years ago, a decision I never regretted.).

I have come to believe that academia is actually a good model for the way many, if not most, businesses will operate in the not to distant future.  Having returned to academia after a long absence what I see is thousands of students showing up with a multitude of devices that must connect to the university's various systems.  This is what more and more businesses are facing today and the lessons that can be learned from how universities deal with this can be very valuable.  Not without pain but it can be done.