Big Thoughts, General Technology, Innovation

CIO: Chief Inspiration Officer?

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Some time ago, as a member of a panel speaking before technology leaders from various industries, I was asked what single, most important piece of advice I would give a new 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 challenging issues facing our profession: excessive and increasing demand to deliver more solutions; overworked and under- appreciated staff; and a technology playing field changing the rules with far too much frequently.

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. 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 ways that delight.

The most essential role of the CIO?

When the panel facilitator turned to me to address the advice I would give a new CIO, I wanted to directly speak to what had been on my mind. I responded, “The CIO should not just think of him or herself as simply the chief information officer, but rather as the chief inspiration officer.” I went on to explain that in an environment where it is easy to be dragged down and feel beaten by some of the realities of the job, it is essential to remind staff of the enormous value of technology and the magic it can create in people’s lives and in the function of organizations. My point was that the skills to create an environment that inspires must complement a CIO’s arsenal of genuine leadership abilities.

Inspiring staff by creating a compelling vision and strategy for technology is one of the lowest costs, yet most effective activities a CIO can do.

As a technology leader, there are a lot of pressing priorities and demand for attention is high. Team members feel the burden of delivering increasingly more complex solutions with less available capacity and in faster time. Inspiring staff by creating a compelling vision and strategy for technology is one of the lowest costs, yet most effective activities a CIO can do. A vision that produces positive, tangible results reminds everyone why we all do this work in the first place.

So how can a CIO inspire?

It’s hard to learn inspiration, but if you find a great way to express your passion and have it connect with others, that will usually get you heading to the right place. To inspire requires a person to have relentless positivity. It requires brilliant storytelling. Request bold challenges of your team members. Participate in action. Most of all, a leader must believe in his or her words and it will shine brightly in their face, energy, and manifest in supporting behavior.

It’s also important to recognize that driving 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 can make each of us respected and appreciated colleagues and leaders. A long time ago I took my own advice and made inspiration a personal job requirement.

A version of this piece first appeared in O’Reilly Radar and was also the basis for a keynote talk at a technology conference.

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