Why CIOs must take risks that might get them fired

When was the last time you really put yourself out there as a CIO? Your organization needs you to take risks: Here’s how to create the necessary personal safety nets
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Crossing the gap to big data

Dear CxOs: If you never do anything that might get you fired, you're probably not doing your job. This is true for IT leaders for several reasons:

First, as an executive, you have a mandate to make continuous improvement to your organization. Also, as a member of the management team, you have a mandate to help the larger organization to not only make continuous improvements, but also disrupt itself before it gets disrupted.

As an executive, you are compensated more than most everyone else in the organization. Why? It's not so that you can sit on your laurels. The notion of executives as sustainers is simply over in these days of global industry disruption.

[ See our related story, How to conquer inner fears that limit your career. ]

Follow me here. The organization needs you to take risks: No risk, no reward. Yet, taking risks at work can result in criticism. It can even be career limiting. I believe that executives are paid more so that they can rebound if one of their risk-taking maneuvers results in job loss. They're not paid higher so that they can just sit and do nothing!

Easy to say, tough to do? I'll give some examples in a moment, but first, allow me to sketch out how to make risk taking a little less personally risky - a key factor in this equation.

Three safety nets to build

The primary enabler of executive risk taking is to create your own safety net. In fact, I think executives need three types of safety nets: financial, social, and personal.

Financial resiliency is essential – and not all that hard given that executives do well financially. Live below your means and save up at least three to six months of living expenses (or more). With this safety net in the bank or money market, you create a sense of psychological safety for yourself that allows you to walk that tightrope of risk taking. Any financial planner will tell you: It's not what you make, it's what you spend. Too often, executives raise their standard of living when they should be growing their savings accounts. Don't make that mistake; it will keep you in fear space and prevent you from ever taking essential risks.

Social resiliency works like this: If you lose your job, 10 colleagues quickly get in touch with you asking if they can help with your next situation.

How do you get there? Again, it’s not that hard. Leaders who think of others as collaborators in life's journey, instead of as competition for the corner office, are much more likely to make lifelong relationships. Thinking win-win for every deal that you close is a great path to long term, trusted, collegial relationships.

Just as you keep working on your business or industry, you must keep working on yourself.

Personal resiliency is all about mindset, habits, and the ongoing battle between self-doubt and narcissism. You are a work in progress, so just as you keep working on your business or industry, you must keep working on yourself. I'm not a "radical self care" fanatic, but there is plenty of evidence that taking care of yourself will make you more resilient to life's hardships.

Take time to work out, meditate, paint, walk in the woods, play with your kids, act in a play, write poetry, practice yoga, skeet shoot, or whatever it is that brings your life into balance. Actively learn about the mindsets that create success. For example, if you haven't read Dr. Carol Dweck's seminal book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," run, do not walk, to your library or bookstore and read it now.

Let me also suggest that most of us have some knots in our personal rope of life that need to get untangled. Counseling is less of a stigma now than it ever has been, and it is a proven way to get right with yourself. Invest in counseling so that your personal boat is more resilient and able to weather personal storms. Again, this creates psychological safety to be able to engage in risk.

[ Want to assess and improve your EQ? See our related story: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

Making way for the next big thing

Risks aren't just about tech adoption. Every time we have a difficult conversation, we take a risk.

In my CIO career, I've taken risks that have worked out, and risks that didn't. At one job, for example, we were early adopters of VoIP, virtualization, and cloud computing. There were plenty of detractors for all of those efforts. "Jonathan, you realize that virtualization is processor sharing." (Cue eye roll.) "Why don't we just use one CPU for one server, as God intended?"

In fact, as it turned out, our early adopter efforts meant that my employer was reaping the benefits much earlier than our peers did.

But risks aren't just about tech adoption. Every time we have a difficult conversation, we take a risk. I recently had a heart-to-heart talk with another director about one of his employee's behavior – behavior that was harming a business project. I could have framed this for myself as, "I don't want to make him mad, and I need his approval to be successful." But the truth is that unless I was willing to take a risk with my relationship with my peer, I simply wasn't doing my job. A project was in danger and the source of that danger needed to be handled.

Taking smart risks also builds a higher organizational tolerance for risks that go bad or mistakes that you make. I once made a bet on radio tower technology that completely flopped. It didn't make things better: In fact, it made things worse for a considerable number of folks. I could have lost my job on that one, but I didn't. Was it because we fixed the issue as soon as possible? That probably contributed – but it also helped that I had taken other risks that made a big difference in terms of better cost and service.

And that's the bottom line and virtuous cycle: We take risks so that we can reap organizational reward, which in turn bolsters our personal credibility. This further enables us to take future risks that may lead to our organization's next big thing. That's not only more effective, but also a hell of a lot more fun than sitting around waiting to retire.

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Jonathan Feldman is the CIO for Wake County in NC and is an award-winning CIO, speaker, and writer. He was named a top CIO to follow by the Huffington Post and was honored with a Frost & Sullivan CIO Impact Award. He was previously CIO for the City of Asheville, NC.