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Duck Soup: The Recipe to Being a Successful CIO

Frank Petersmark | May 18, 2015

“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” – Groucho Marx

It’s hard to argue with Groucho Marx’s view on club membership, especially if that club is for CIOs. Why would anybody in their right mind want to become a CIO in this day and age of Moore’s Law on steroids and all of the unrealistic expectations that come with it? Why subject one’s self to the trials and tribulations—not to mention the drama—that inevitably accompanies the CIO position? 

It would be one thing if the rules of engagement were settled, as they are with, say, finance or human resources.  In those instances there are templates and rules to follow—even best practices I dare say—while in the case of the CIO those are still unsettled issues. However, if you decide to ignore Groucho’s advice and join the club, or even if you’re a longtime member, there are some methods and approaches for making some order from the madness. The Marx Brothers seem as good a place as any to start.      

First and foremost, follow Groucho’s advice and don’t take yourself too seriously.  There are a lot of benefits to adopting such an approach. Yes, being a CIO is a serious job, but that doesn’t mean that you have to behave in such a way that people find you dour and uncompromising, or worst of all, lacking a sense of humor.

With a shorter executive history than some of the other insurance executive disciplines, mistakes are going to occur, so prepare for them by not being surprised or defensive when they do take place. Remember that mistakes lead to learning opportunities for both you and your staff, so when they do occur be prepared to handle them with grace, humility, and yes, a sense of humor. 

That is not to say that you should crack jokes if you find yourself in the position of terminating a program or project that has sunk expenses and requires some financial and resource pain. That is to say, however, that you need to demonstrate introspection and self-critical thinking to your staff and colleagues by articulating the lessons learned and longer term implications of the decision.  

It might help to keep the following in mind from the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup, as Grouch’s character Rufus T. Firefly instructs a war time messenger: “You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”

Second, embrace the chaos that comes with being a CIO. As executives by title and technologists by nature, it’s natural to want to exert complete control over all facets of the IT experience at your organization. This, however, is a mistake. Instead, focus on just a few things that are worth controlling—attitude, relationships, and expectations—and let the other chips fall where they may. 

If you try to control too many things you will inevitably fail, burning precious energy and time in areas that don’t really matter. You’ll also deprive others of the opportunity to manage some things for themselves, make their own decisions, and make the kinds of mistakes they need to make in order to learn and mature.  This is a tough one, as most CIOs are closet (or declared) OCD nuts whose natural instincts are to minutely schedule every facet of everything that occurs on every day. 

Here’s another way to remember this, and a good example of what the right amount of lack of control should feel like. There’s a scene in Duck Soup when a spy for the warring country (played by Chico Marx) reports on the activities of Groucho’s character:  “Monday we watch-a Firefly's house, but he no come he wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game, but we fool him, we no show up. Thursday it was a double-header, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was no ball game, so we stayed home, we listen to it over the radio.” I haven’t heard a better description of what being a CIO feels like.               

Finally, change the parameters.  If something isn’t working, have the courage to let it go. And that’s irrespective of whether or not the something was initiated by you, your predecessor, or an executive colleague in the organization. Ownership and accountability are the key characteristics for any CIO, and actively practicing and exhibiting these characteristics is what builds trust and credibility with colleagues and staffs alike. 

If it becomes obvious after the appropriate homework has been completed and more money and resources aren’t going to make a difference (not that they ever do), change the parameters and take control and ownership, demonstrate leadership and intestinal fortitude, and put the organizations’ best interests in front of any personal agenda or pride. 

As Groucho reminds us: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” It really does help to laugh about it. 

Frank Petersmark is principal with Tabula Rasa Consulting.

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