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Are You in The Protection Business?

by Tina Nunno  |  March 19, 2015  |  Submit a Comment

Are You in the Protection Business?

As a leader, are you in the “protection business?” Yes, I’m aware of the cliche nature of my raising this topic as an Italian-American. Go ahead, get the Mafia jokes out of your system. It’s completely understandable. I’ll wait…

Okay, now that we have that taken care of; are you in the protection business? Is it your job as a CIO or IT executive to protect your team, your department, people in other departments, and your enterprise? To what degree is it your responsibility to protect yourself? Do you have the ability, the arsenal, and the inclination to protect others and yourself? Or do you think, “No, they all need to learn how to protect themselves.”

If you tend towards the latter, you may have fallen victim to the “corporate cage match” mentality. It’s not just you. There are many books and high priced consultancies out there who advocate putting our employees in direct competition with one another and letting them fight everything out amongst themselves. This school of thought draws on a skewed Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. Somehow they believe corporations become more profitable by creating carnage. I believe Charles Darwin would be saddened by this misuse of his research.

Or, some of you may not want to be in the protection business. Protection implies conflict and fighting, doesn’t it? Yes, it does. It means that when you believe someone is behaving inappropriately or putting someone else at risk, you will step in, draw the line in the sand and hold that line. Protection is not simply fighting for fighting’s sake. It mean’s fighting for something of value.

I believe those who advocate the “corporate cage match” approach to conflict are often actually conflict -avoidant. They abdicate the responsibility of drawing the line, and rather than stand for something, they stand apart and watch the carnage unfold.

They accept the trappings of leadership, but not the privilege of protecting those for whom they are responsible.  

However, if you do indeed believe you are in the protection business or you want to be, consider these important questions:

Who should you be protecting?

IT Staff – As a CIO, is it your job to protect your team from an excessive workload? Should you protect them from urgent requests that aren’t really urgent but cause them to work unnecessarily long hours? Is it your job to advocate for your team, champion them and help manage their reputations, or is that someone else’s job?

Unfortunately, too many CIOs see their roles as service providers to their “internal customers.” They may inadvertently sacrifice the quality of life of their own staff in the interest of making other colleagues “happy.” Alternately, the service provider construct implies that others will protect the service provider, rather than their having to, or being able to protect themselves.

In either case, CIOs risk forfeiting part of their protection role and sending a message that the individuals on their team do not matter as much as others in the enterprise.

Colleagues – Should you protect colleagues from themselves? When they ask for IT which puts the enterprise at risk, or fail to fund IT adequately enough to run the business, do you help steer them away? If they are not taking enough risk do you take action?

CIOs and IT leaders in service provider stance feel compelled to take a position of “plausible deniability.” They give colleagues what they ask for, regardless of how reckless those requests may be. By doing so, they hope their colleagues will accept blame for the messes that result (they won’t) and fail to protect their colleagues from themselves – and the enterprise from those decisions.

What should you be protecting?

Are there values and principles you stand for that define a line you will not cross, and that you will not let others cross? What are they? Here, I’m not referring to “on time, on budget, on scope,” but rather how we treat each other along the way.

Do you expect that others will treat the members of your department with a certain level of respect, courtesy and professionalism? Do you expect that level of professional behavior across your enterprise? When someone crosses that line, what do you do? Do you step in and take a stand, or do you do something else?

Some CIOs tell me in that in such situations, they step in, but follow the traditional maxim of “praise in public, correct in private”. While this has some validity, particularly when dealing the performance issues of direct reports, it does not work when dealing with situations where some have treated others poorly. When we deal with poor behavior privately, it still sends the public message that the poor behavior was acceptable. The line in the sand is invisible.

Recently I spoke with several CIOs who described situations where they witnessed colleagues behaving poorly by attempting to intimidate others into getting what they wanted, and derailing large meetings by taking over the agenda. In these cases, some CIOs expressed frustration that they wished “someone would do something.”

To that I ask, “Why not you?”

Do you have the arsenal you need to protect that which you value?

CIOs often ask, “Why me?” because they do not feel empowered to take a strong, protective leadership role and draw lines. Service providers don’t draw lines; rather they are discouraged from having any boundaries at all and are told that ideal behavior means saying “yes” all the time.

This “yes-model” protects no-one. In reality, children never grow up. They just become taller. Taller children who get everything they want become as poorly behaved as shorter, younger children. Tall children’s IT “needs” tend to degenerate to “wants” and “whims” even when they have a corner office. CEOs should embrace CIOs who protect the enterprise by challenging, drawing lines in the sand when it makes sense, asking difficult questions, and proactively helping the enterprise achieve competitive advantage. And CIOs should embrace that role.

You probably have a great deal more in your protection arsenal than you realize. You may have left the arsenal in the closet because you didn’t think it was your job to use it in this manner. Consider your ability to say “no” to unreasonable requests, to ask the difficult questions such as, “how does it benefit the bottom line if we do that?” and to set boundaries that protect the entire enterprise.

Once you get in, you will never get out

My Italian heritage compels me to note that there is a useful analogy to be made here. Once you get into the protection business, you will never get out. Not because you will not be able to, but more likely because you will not want to. It is a privilege to use your leadership position to protect others. Leadership is an opportunity to help reduce and manage conflict by setting ambitious goals for how we treat each other while we fulfill the enterprise’s goals. But while anyone can create ambitious goals, only strong leaders can set and protect their lines in the sand.

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Tina Nunno
Vice President & Distinguished Analyst
16 years at Gartner
16 years IT Industry

Tina Nunno is a research vice president in Gartner's CIO Research group based in Stamford, Connecticut. Ms. Nunno is responsible for conducting research and developing publications aimed at helping CIOs and their organizations around the world improve their performance and contribution. Read Full Bio




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