5 IT leadership mistakes to avoid: Alabama CIO of the Year winners share

What moves must rising IT leaders and seasoned CIOs alike avoid as they nurture individuals? Award-winning CIOs share their advice
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One of the most rewarding roles CIOs play is nurturing the next generation of IT leadership. It’s an opportunity to pass along the wisdom and, importantly, lessons learned from a career navigating the complexities and constantly evolving priorities of IT.

We caught up with CIOs who recently won the 2021 Alabama CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to learn more about what it takes to be a strong IT leader today. The awards were presented by the Alabama CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

Your people are essential to your success as a leader.

One theme each of these award-winning CIOs could agree on: Your people are essential to your success as a leader. How you empower, support, include, and invest in them can make the difference between good and great leadership. Read on for five mistakes rising IT leaders and seasoned CIOs alike should avoid.

1. Trying to simply satisfy customer expectations

Leadership CIO of the Year

Curt Carver

Curt Carver, VP & CIO, University of Alabama at Birmingham: One mistake that holds back IT leaders is trying to satisfy customer expectations. We do not satisfy – we delight. We form an emotional connection with our customers and business partners due to the transformed services we offer. If we were to meet our customers in real life, they would walk up and hug us. Anything less is creating a strategic disadvantage for our organization as we are aiming too low and creating space for existing or new competitors to challenge us.

Never take a linear step forward when you can take an exponential leap instead. Hire the best people you can find and invest in them to make them even better. Hold them accountable to do great things so that they self-identify as agents of innovation empowered to change the world. Build a corporate culture where these agents of innovation wake up every day hungry to tackle new challenges and delight your customers and business partners.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

2. Not empowering your team

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year

Kevin McMahon

Kevin McMahon, Senior EVP & CIO, BBVA USA: The most insidious long-term mistake I’ve seen is not genuinely empowering your people. The IT community is full of very smart and very creative people. The failure to tap into the full capabilities of your team will hold back any leader. Empowerment is not about task or responsibility assignments, it’s about giving your team the room to create solutions, find the best ways to do things, and feel a real ownership of their areas of responsibility. An empowered team will continuously amaze you with their creativity and productivity, something the business and your customers will benefit from regularly.

If you find your team always asking you for direction or “clearing” all of their ideas through you, it is likely they don’t feel empowered. Make it clear you trust them with both your words and your actions. Allow them to try new things, support their ideas and encourage creativity. When your team knows you will back them up, they will adopt a sense of ownership. Avoid personal involvement in the details and give your team the leeway to work out how they want to accomplish the goals you give them. You may have to experience some failures, but in the long run, the solutions from your team will be better and you as a leader will be able to move yourself and your team forward.

3. Not including employees and career development in your strategic plan

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Terri Bentley

Terri Bentley, Senior EVP & CIO, Redstone Federal Credit Union: A lack of short and long-term plans can hold IT leaders back. Prepare a 1-3 year IT strategic plan that supports the organization’s goals. Be sure to include employees in the preparation of the plan. This helps in establishing an IT budget. Key to the strategic plan is investing in the implementation of new technology to be more effective and efficient while always delivering a great experience for end users and customers. But don’t forget to also invest in your employees. Provide a career development path to higher positions of authority. Hire employees with the talent and skills to perform the job responsibilities needed now and in the future aligned to your strategic plan. To retain employees, provide training on new tools and certifications. Allow them flexibility in their job and involve them in their career planning.

4. Burning out your team

Corporate CIO of the Year

Ben Barnes

Ben Barnes, CISO, VP IT Services, McLeod Software: In IT leadership there are constant pressures from the business to keep current with customer expectations, keep technology up and running, stay abreast of cybersecurity trends, and be innovative. With ever changing demands, a common mistake is for IT leaders to become focused on expectations and lose sight of the pressures that are inherently placed on the IT team. This can lead to burnout and an unhappy culture with frequent turnover.

As an IT leader, creating a positive atmosphere where individuals can be productive while also allowing time for creativity is challenging. To enable IT to grow and stay energized, establish methods for open communication, appreciation for forward-thinking team members, and allocate time for recharging.

5. Not investing in your people

Nonprofit/Public Sector CIO of the Year

Scott Ross

Scott Ross, Director of IT, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology: Leaders are nothing without their people. Don’t limit your strategy and projects to only what you understand or are capable of. As a leader, it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people, helping them grow, and making sure they have the resources to do their job. Develop talent, create opportunities, and trust your team. They’ll rise to the occasion and accomplish amazing things.

Fail as a team and grow as a team. Be accountable when things go wrong. Find your leaders and do everything you can to retain them. Hire character and train skill to help support them. Amplify the voice of your team to shine the spotlight and identify areas of need. Most of all, instill a collaborative mindset in how your team works together and works with your organization.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  

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