IT priorities: Do your job first, talk strategy later

It's great to have grand strategic plans and ideas, but don't forget about your real responsibilities at work

Dear Bob ...

I'm the CFO for a smallish company (a few hundred employees). We're growing reasonably fast, each of us on the executive team is stretched pretty thin, and my head of IT is driving me nuts.

[ Also on InfoWorld: If you're a manager faced with a difficult conversation, remember: Management is not a popularity contest. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

All the guy wants to do is talk over his brilliant thoughts about strategy. He has a grand total of two direct reports. Our IT is pretty basic: what we can get done with QuickBooks Enterprise, plus Exchange/Outlook/Office and whatever our employees decide to install to make them more effective. We use a hosting service for our website that provides a good-enough toolkit and that's about it.

We hired Mr. Strategy three months ago because -- well, in retrospect, I'm not sure. Our two-person IT department did OK keeping the lights on, and between them, they were able to figure out whatever they needed.

There was a certain level of chewing gum and duct tape in what they put together for us, which meant we had more downtime than we thought was reasonable, and I wasn't in a position to evaluate what our techs told us we needed to spend to stabilize the systems. We figured we needed somebody more seasoned to figure it all out and get the situation stabilized.

Long story short, the situation hasn't stabilized and Mr. Strategy doesn't seem to have much interest in operating at that level. I'm about a week from tossing him out the door. Before I do, should I be listening to him instead of fantasizing about violence in the workplace?

- Frothing

Dear Frothing ...

What you're facing isn't uncommon, and it's been exacerbated by an endless stream of articles in the trade press extolling the virtues of the CIO-as-businessman-not-as-technician.

Chances are your head of IT is incurable. Once people are bit by the strategy bug, it's hard to get them to concentrate on real work, and that's just as true of CEOs and CFOs as it is of CIOs. COOs tend to be immune, because by definition their job is to take care of operations -- all too often to leave the CEO free to think deep thoughts.

Here's the conversation you should have first, assuming you haven't already had it: You have to explain, in no uncertain terms, that the head of IT for a company your size isn't like the head of IT for a Fortune 500 company, only shorter. It's a fundamentally different job, just like yours and just like the CEO's.

In a company your size, strategy is something you think about wistfully while showering in the morning before work. By the time you've put on your shirt, you're thinking about how to get through the day.

The closest you and the CEO ever get to real strategic planning is a quick discussion about who else the company can sell to and what the next product ought to be -- very basic questions, not complex plans that require careful planning and orchestration. Even if that wasn't the case, nobody will have any interest in a strategy that depends on information technology if they can't rely on the information technology they already have.

If he wants to stay with you, he had better change his focus radically. Right now the company isn't ready for strategy and neither is he.

My guess: He'll try to "fail up" to a different position with a firm that's looking for a more strategic head of IT. Maybe he'll find one.

When he does, he'll find he still has to take care of the fundamentals first. It's as I explained in the KJR Manifesto: Before you can be strategic, you have to be competent.

- Bob

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