Good Read: “The CIO Paradox”

As any Chief Information Officer can attest to, establishing and sustaining productive working relationships within the context of our organizations involves confronting a series of contradictions that seem to persist even as circumstances change over time.    And the process never ends.  Welcome to the “CIO Paradox”.

I just finished my “advance reading copy” of “The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership” by Martha Heller.   The book is one of the few I’ve read that actually goes beyond a really well articulated description of the shared experiences of CIOs.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s some therapeutic value in that.  No doubt about it.  But I don’t have the time to just affirm my experience.  I get it.  I’m not alone.  Well said.  Let’s move on.  Often after listening to or reading about the many challenges commonly faced by CIOs I’m left with the same lingering question:  OK, therefore what?  Thankfully, Martha Heller’s “The CIO Paradox” does an artful job of articulating the essence of the inherent contradictions associated with IT leadership and (therefore) what to do about it.

The book frames the CIO Paradox in a clear and concise way:

Viewing the CIO role through this paradoxical lens really gets to the core of what frustrates many of us most about the job, but Heller does more than just remind us of our frustrations.  She uses them to focus our attention on what we can do to cultivate our full potential, and the organizations we help lead, given what most of us truly have to offer.

One of the overriding themes from the book is how relationships and perceptions permeate everything we do as CIOs.   At the core of any productive working relationship is a shared understanding of the answer to three fundamental questions:  What’s my role in this?  What’s your role in this?  What’s our joint role in this?  The answer to these questions for CIOs and our counterparts varies depending on what “this” refers to specifically and the lens through which others view us; the inter-personal, structural, political and symbolic context of our organizations.  I thought the book did a remarkable job of capturing the nuanced relationships between situations, roles and context with the anecdotes and guidance that are provided for each paradox.

The final chapter of the book, “Breaking the Paradox”, concludes with a checklist.  If I were to add anything, it would be a few challenging questions that could be used to determine what from the checklist really matters when answering; “What’s Next for the CIO?”:

Most of the book stimulates this kind of thinking throughout.  For example, there is extensive use of CIO quotes from conversations, mini case studies that are used to illustrate the practical application of suggested approaches and some self-assessments (some of which were developed by CIOs).  In each case, what the author shared was helpful and did not come off as shameless self-promotion.  Much of the book can be thought of as lessons learned from one CIO to another.

Other astute observations and insightful advice could only come from the unique perspective of the author as an executive recruiter, columnist, and organizer of peer networks for CIOs.  And some of the analogies and humor interjected throughout the book could only come from a (fellow) parent of teenage children.  Heller’s writing style felt more like the friendly counsel from a trusted advisor than sterilized frameworks from a detached analyst.  That refreshing combination was enough to make reading “The CIO Paradox” for me both enjoyable and informative.  I recommend it for any current and aspiring CIO.  Someone looking to hire and/or retain a good CIO would be well served to read it as well.  I can also see how the book can serve as the basis for some interesting discussion among peer networks.  In fact, it occurred to me that reading a similarly well written CEO Paradox, COO Paradox, CMO Paradox and CFO Paradox would also be worthwhile.  It would be helpful to understand these paradoxes as well.  Are there any sequels on the horizon?

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