The best piece of advice I ever received: CIOs reveal the secrets of their success

Tech chiefs share the most helpful advice they've been given and how it has changed the way they work.

"If you know something's wrong, don't try and defend your approach," says Top Right Group IT director Sean Harley. Image: Shutterstock

No CIO is an island. All business leaders, no matter how strong their leadership skills, form part of an executive chain, where support and feedback from senior peers and colleagues are crucial elements of individual success.

But what is the single best piece of advice a CIO can receive?

I've spoken to CIOs and management experts to find out what was the most useful guidance they have ever been given - and how it can help others too.

Concentrate on the importance of delivery

Top Right Group IT director Sean Harley says the best piece of advice he's ever been given comes down to a single word: delivery. He refers back several years to an experience from running technology for Sky IQ. Harley made a decision to introduce phones from Nokia, rather than BlackBerry, at the firm. It quickly became clear that the decision was a mistake.

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Yet Harley's boss, the chief executive, offered constructive criticism, praising his other project deliveries and telling him to simply accept defeat and buy BlackBerrys. "If you know something's wrong, don't try and defend your approach," says Harley.

"Say 'sorry', move on, and deliver something that's better for the business. It's better to admit defeat than to have hundreds of unhappy and unproductive users. Be prepared to change and deliver quickly what the business needs."

The focus on results remains central to Harley's modern approach to IT management. "Delivery is crucial to everything," he says. "It goes from innovation to strategy and from practical IT to delivering papers to the board. Great IT leadership is always about delivery."

Stay cool in the heat of the moment

Bruna Pellicci, IT director at legal firm Ashurst, says the best advice she ever received came from one of the partners of the firm. "Sometimes, it's just best to take a step away, to calm down, and to review the situation before your gut instinct kicks in," she says, referring to his advice.

"If you face a challenging situation, then you must consider your next move really carefully. Basically, you need to pause and reflect before you send that email that your gut instinct tells you is the right thing to do."

Pellicci says it is easy to get irked in a business situation, especially when instructions have to be repeated. She is a strong believer, however, that great IT relies on great people. And engagement has to be the watchword for CIOs looking to stay cool and collected.

"Have frank and calm conversations," she says. "Like other executives, I used to get emotionally involved. Now, I step back and think about what other people are trying to understand or achieve. Always be as polite and considerate as possible."

Recognise that you alone own the business outcome

Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership, says it is fascinating to reflect on great advice he has received. "There have been so many useful tips over the years," he says. "The guidance I hold most dear came from a very financially-focused CEO, whose advice seemed very simple at first glance and related to potentially expensive and unforeseen issues."

The CEO in question told Behenna that, if he or any other colleague must have an immediate answer to a funding question, then the default will always be 'no'. He says the advice still resonates today and has actually become even more pertinent over time.

"We live in an increasingly entropic state of business affairs and the career CIO must anticipate and craft responses to the chaos by managing the unexpected, smoothing the spikes, and keeping a clear vision of the future, as trite and unfair as that may sound. Here you have an anchor-point and certainty, a gift of enormous value in an uncertain world," says Behenna.

"As CIO, you own the outcome, no one else. Be prepared, know your stuff, anticipate and pre-empt. That's why firms pay you the big bucks. There are dozens of commercial firms out there who would be only too delighted to replace you as a pure utility, and you can be absolutely certain that someone, somewhere, in your organisation is aware of this or - more likely - actively investigating the possibility."

Get a good grip on your organisation's operating model

Ian Cox, former CIO and now consultant at Axin, says the best advice he received came from the finance director to whom he reported in his first CIO role. Cox says the guidance was akin to an in-depth education in the mechanics of the business for which he worked.

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"Across a number of lengthy discussions during my first few months in the role, the FD talked me through every aspect of the organisation's operating model, including its cost structures, core processes, and control points, how it generated and managed its revenue and cash flow, plus a whole range of other subjects," he says.

"That education proved invaluable in every aspect of my role as CIO, from building relationships with my key stakeholders and developing a new IT strategy, through to defining and prioritising the technology roadmap and gaining support for the resulting investment."

While it was not direct advice, Cox says the guidance provided a key learning point that he has passed on to other CIOs and people in IT leadership roles. "Get to know the mechanics of the business, how it works, how it makes money, and how it all fits together," he says.

"As a CIO, if you have a good grip on the organisation's operating model, then you are well placed to set the direction for technology, make the right decisions on priorities and investment, and also demonstrate to your peers that you are more than just a techie."

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