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The right stuff

The right stuff

What does it take to make the leadership leap? Do you have what it takes?

Experience possesses immense power, believes S. Hariharan. The past, says the senior vice president (infrastructure services and support group) of i-flex Solutions, has a hand in molding present-day thought. And in many ways, his experience has pointed to the value of playing IT by the ear.

Take for instance Hariharan's approach to his IT organization. He adopts a hands-on approach in certain areas and delegation in others. Delegation is crucial when people need to be empowered and shown that they make a difference to the organization.

Not very far away from i-flex Solutions' headquarters in Mumbai, the IT department of Reliance Industries is founded on one approach: delegation. Ashish Chauhan, president & group CIO of Reliance Industries, asserts that a CIO's role is largely about empowering his team. In a large organization like Reliance, a hands-on approach won't always work, he says.

Hariharan and Chauhan's leadership approaches couldn't be more different. Yet, both have reached the top and managed to thrive there. How? It comes down to knowing the leadership style that best suits them -- and staying true to it. If you are a hands-on person, be a hands-on manager. If you are naturally enthusiastic, use the enthusiasm to motivate your troops. And if you are a quiet strategist, don't try to manufacture false rah-rah; focus on strategy instead.

Every CIO needs to find his or her own leadership style. But getting to the top also requires the ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunities to hone what you've learned, say the CIOs who nominated the winners of the 2007 CIO Ones to Watch, which honors senior staff poised to become tomorrow's IT heads.

Hariharan believes that much of his growth coincided with i-flex's expansion plans. "With multiple locations and numerous offices, the challenge was to provide IT infrastructure that enabled business," he says. Chauhan, on the other hand, had his first taste of IT when he was part of a five-member team that set up the NSE around 1992. "In those days, I set up the first Indian commercial satellite network for NSE which is still amongst the largest in the world," he points out.

For some, the taste of IT started even earlier. K.B. Singh, head of IT at BSES Power, says, "During my Masters' studies in North America in the early 1980s, I saw how developed countries used information technology for business advantage. I felt that a country like ours could also benefit from this kind of approach. But at that time, the IT base in India was very poor." Today, in India, he is doing exactly what he wanted to do.

Of course, not everybody gets into IT right from when they were in college -- Amit Mukherjee, group CIO of RPG Enterprises, says that he got a solid grounding into IT while working with Tata Steel and other companies in the early 1990s. It points again to the power of experience.

While all these IT leaders have had diverse backgrounds, they all agree that their initial grounding helped a lot when they became CIOs. "My early experience in various IT organizations has given me immense knowledge in my current role as i-flex's CIO," avers Hariharan. Ashish Chauhan seconds that observation: "Early experiences during my education of working on cutting edge of technology and subsequent opportunities of applying the knowledge and learning new techniques has been something I have always cherished." With Singh, it has been "a combination of early work experience and constantly updating myself, that has extremely useful in shaping my career because technology evolves very fast." Mukherjee also attributes his success to his work in shaping his nature, and feels that it was "very important."

These diverse backgrounds have given CIOs their own understanding of success and failure of IT projects. "We may call it failure or adjustment for the business advantage," says Singh. In many cases, Mukherjee notes, perseverance and modifications have converted failures into success. A more pragmatic Hariharan feels that failures are an inherent part of the learning-and-growth process. "In retrospect, one learns more from failures than from successes," says Chauhan.

Regardless of what these IT leaders feel about failure, they are unanimous in the belief that fear of failure apart, risks have to be taken. While taking risks is important, one should take calculated risks backed by a proper risk mitigation strategy, says Mukherjee. It is something Hariharan agrees with. Chauhan notes that "doing nothing is also about taking risk." The only person who doesn't believe in any such thing as risk is Singh: "There is no risk when there is a vision to carry an IT initiative till the end."

The implication of the stream of thought that emerges from these beliefs is that before taking risks, one should become familiar with the areas of business, particularly with respect to those aspects that do not fall within the ambit of IT. The four CIOs we interviewed feel that it is critical to understand all the areas of operation. Chauhan here seems to be the most vocal champion of technology. "IT is the only glue that binds large organizations, and facilitates the organization to behave as a single entity," he points out.

This naturally begs the question: should IT executives, in order to gain better exposure, move from company to company? An emphatic no. It is better to move around within the existing company and gain exposure rather than hop from one job to another. Says Hariharan, "In a large organization, an IT executive may develop skill-sets by just being within the organization and playing different roles." Evidently, developing a keen understanding of the business is more fruitful than visiting job-related websites.

It's unsaid in IT organizations: CIOs must have a sound understanding of business to reach the top.

In the context of business and technology, one question keeps popping up: should the CIO be more inclined towards business than technology? Hariharan and Singh feel that the CIO need not be a businessperson, but needs to understand business requirements and processes. Mukherjee, however, says that without business success, there can be no IT success. Chauhan agrees, "Understanding the business is of utmost importance. Without that, IT is like a body without a soul."

But while understanding business is one thing, communicating the role of technology -- especially to the top management -- is another. Mukherjee, therefore, feels that the CIO should don two hats and be able to discuss business with the top management and the nitty-gritty issues of hardware upgrades and software installations with his own tech team.

On the other hand, Hariharan has a slightly different take. "Communication is through results. When a CIO shows results to top management in terms of IT helping to increase revenue and optimize costs, then it's clear that the marriage of technology and business acumen works."

Chauhan, though, is worried about layers besides the top management. "At each step, the business interaction and business buy-in at all levels is of utmost importance." In this respect, Singh sounds the happiest. "We have an IT roadmap to meet the business objectives. In each area, we have activities that are broken down to meet a defined schedule. In our case, IT is aligned with business objectives, and our management is also tech-savvy. Therefore, this task is much easier." In spite of this, he admits that "there is always pressure on achieving milestones and measuring benefits."

One way in which a CIO can achieve his milestones is by building skills related to various areas of business. Chauhan is clear about how this should be done, and, with a touch of reverence, says, "I have found this to be the most effective way of learning business skills at the feet of the masters of the business." Mukherjee, who honed his skills on project management while working for Reliance Industries earlier, feels that management of resources and third-party vendors plays a crucial role in business. Hariharan has gone about the same by building both technology and management skills in his IT department. Training has been an important formal channel to achieve proficiency in both, he says.

What does the CIO do then with these skill-sets: does he become a change agent? All the IT leaders we interviewed feel that this is what a CIO was born to do. "Being a change manager is very important, and should be administered along with business innovations and initiatives that help business the most," says Singh. In fact, Mukherjee believes that a CIO is the most important change agent because he is instrumental in bringing about change with the aid of technology.

Chauhan feels that the change a CIO effects in his organization should not be restricted to technology, but also include the larger ambit of business. "The most effective way to usher a change is to make it least painful for everyone concerned, and still ensure that the organization progresses in overall use of technology for the benefit of the business it is serving." Towards this end, Hariharan says, "The change must be enabled through efficient IT processes, applications that streamline business operations, and technology that is constantly evolving to benefit business."

But change is not possible merely with the blessings of the top management -- the active involvement of the user community can determine if the project succeeds or fails. "We need both a top-down and a bottom-up approach to convince everybody, and at times, some amount of force is also required," says Mukherjee. However, he is quick to point out that there is a carrot-and-stick approach at work: convincing the end user that there is something in it for him is one of the best ways of ensuring end user buy-in.

Of course, cajoling the end user doesn't always work. "There are situations where one can't compromise (like system security and regulatory requirements), and the users are not given a choice," says Hariharan. Such instances apart, users play a definitive role. Chauhan actually goes as far as to quip that one should involve users from the concept stage and incorporate some of the users as part of the overall strategic team for the project. "Insights and enthusiasm of these champion users will go a long way in providing requisite buy-in from management and end users," he adds.

Chauhan also believes in what he calls a rollout framework, which would provide the CIO with a tool to ensure that the benefits envisaged at the time of taking the management buy-in are realized in the field by handholding, training and motivating the users by showing real benefits to each user and the organization as a whole in a systematic and planned manner. In the absence of such a rollout framework, Chauhan warns, a project may be successful in the technical sense but not from the business perspective because users may not be enthusiastic or may not be able to keep pace with the speed of change of technology.

Even K.B. Singh believes that the involvement of the user group during or post technology implementation is a key to success. He advocates a different tack, though. "It is advisable to first select areas where business advantages could be realized fast with IT implementation and this would generate confidence at all levels." This comes with a caveat though: before doing this, the management has to be completely committed. And to get here, the CIO should do the internal selling of the project idea at a strategic level. Once the idea is sold, the management may require quick results, and to ensure this, "the IT implementation staff may have to take extra pain," explains Singh.

There is a benefit associated with this pain. It enables the CIO to get noticed when the results start pouring in. Hariharan puts it succinctly when he says, "Results! Results! Results! Result-orientation must be a primary focus for any CIO. For this, the CIO must realize that he has to be in close touch with technology and business. Only in this way can results be ensured." He also warns that, since a CIO is usually bound to get noticed when there is a failure as opposed to when the implementation is successful, he should take special pains to minimize failure, which can result in negative internal publicity.

Mukherjee, who is all for a hands-on approach, feels that in order to get results, a CIO should pilot a large project that changes the face of the organization and handle the project all the way from ideation to implementation. This way, a CIO can get to understand the various facets of business and his interaction with the management and the user community will also develop further. This has a double benefit -- the top management begins to trust the acumen of the CIO and users too learn to respect the CIO as a senior person who can deliver business solutions.

Handling a large project involves team spirit, and Singh seems to believe that even this helps because the CIO then learns how to manage technology, the top management, the end users, and his own team more effectively. A CIO should "get into the business processes, make an IT implementation that delivers the maximum business advantages, build a formidable team and align IT with the business objectives," he asserts.

Chauhan rounds up averring that "the CIO has to work continuously towards providing world class solutions to business. He has to understand business in detail and master technology. Anticipation and flexibility in terms of business processes and technology are very important because these differentiate a good CIO from a not-so-good CIO."

Shakespeare said it best: "To thine own self be true." Don't change who you are just because you are now the head honcho.

Senior writer Ben Worthen of CXO Media (US) contributed to this story.

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