Big Thoughts

CIO: Chief Inspiration Officer?

Earlier this year, as a member of a panel speaking before IT leaders from various industries, I was asked what single, most important piece of advice I would give a chief information officer (CIO).

Just prior to the question, I was struck by how our discussion had been rather sobering in nature. We were dwelling on some of the more negative issues facing our profession: shrinking budgets in the face of a difficult economy; excessive and increasing demand to deliver more with less; and overworked and under appreciated staff. Deep inside the discourse on the state of any profession, it’s understandable that the pain points often get all the attention. While careful discussion of current issues is vital, it’s also incumbent on leaders to balance debate with positivity. To focus entirely on challenges in this forum risked the potential to miss the complete story: a CIO has the ability to lead important and meaningful business change; to create enormous value; and to impact staff and customers in positive ways.

When the master of ceremonies turned to me to address the advice I would give CIOs, I wanted to directly speak to what had been on my mind. I responded, “The CIO should not think of him or herself as the chief information officer, but rather as the chief inspiration officer of the technology organization.”

I went on to explain that in an environment where it can be easy to be dragged down and feel beaten by some of the realities of the job, it was essential to find ways to keep staff focused on the business value of technology and the magic it can create. My point was that to inspire could complement a CIO’s arsenal of genuine leadership behaviors.

After the meeting I considered whether what I had said made any sense at all. I didn’t think of it again until just a few weeks ago.

As I anticipated, in my role now as CIO of O’Reilly Media, there are a lot of pressing priorities, and demand for my attention is high. But more visibly I can see that team members feel the burden of delivering increasingly more complex solutions with less available capacity and in faster time. It is only now that I can reflect on the advice I had given to other CIOs. What I said may have actually made some sense. It turns out that inspiring staff by creating a vision and strategy for technology is one of the lowest costs, yet most effective activities a CIO can do. A vision that produces positive results reminds everyone why we do this work in the first place.

It’s hard to learn inspiration, but if you find a great way to express your passion and have it connect with the audience, that will usually get you to the right place. It’s also fair to say inspiration is not limited to the CIO. Regardless of your role, inspiring others has considerable value and it feels great.

Often we each need a reminder of the core behaviors that make great leaders. I’m taking my own advice and making inspiration my own job requirement.

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