The Virtuous CIO  

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February 7, 2010 — The Over-Communicator

Just how important is it for the CIO to stay in touch? A stupid question you say. The CIO needs to know what's going on. The mark of a successful CIO is that precise situational awareness which keeps him out of hot water.

So what about those meetings where CxOs and senior directors and a majority of the attendees are reading or typing into their Blackberries and iPhones? Those same people will shrug or chuckle nervously when the question is presented to them. Looking at their reaction, we can ask: how much communication is too much communication?

I suppose we could carry the questions a bit further: Is a CIO who is tethered to his electronic device unable to delegate routine decision-making to his subordinates? Or is that same CIO simply unable to trust those who report to him? I would grant the active CEO may routinely be interrupted during meetings, because he has a lot going on. But there is something wrong with managers will allow themselves to be routinely pulled into decision-making when they are otherwise engaged in a meeting.

Being iconoclastic, I have reached the conclusion it is not necessary for me to carry a Blackberry or a smart phone with a data plan. I operate under the philosophy that the people who need to get in touch with me know how to get in touch with me. You may think I am sounding self-righteous, but actually, I speak from experience. When I look at email during a meeting, I am missing either content or nuances of the meeting. By missing either, I am in danger of making bad decisions.

The use of electronics to multi-task during meetings has other side effects. Sitting in a meeting and thumbing a Blackberry subtly tells the others in the meeting of the low regard you hold them in. You are not taking them seriously, and you simply cannot be bothered to give them your full attention. Furthermore your subordinates will see you doing this and assume it is okay for them to do so as well.

I have heard of people who excuse their use of the equipment during meetings as a way to salvage wasted time. An over-meetinged work force is a symptom of management problems in the organization. Rather than using the wasted time as a way to catch up on his email, the aggressive CIO will take the initiative to structure the meetings to be more productive, or simply not attend.

While it is beyond the subject of this essay, an endless wasteland of meetings can be changed positively by someone who actively works to get things done. You can Google on How to have a good meeting and find an endless list of advice. But let’s get back to our CIO in this case.

I follow a simple rule about meetings. If I am sitting at the table in a meeting, I leave the device back in the office. I will occasionally receive a text message on my phone from my admin if something is urgent, but otherwise I give the meeting my full attention.

There are some meetings I attend as an observer. Either my presence is required to cement the authority of whoever is chairing the meeting, or I simply need to be aware of what’s going on. Sometimes I will sit in the corner, away from the table, and look at email on my notebook, or catch up on reading. I’m not really paying attention to the meeting, but I am keeping half an ear open to what’s going on.

Another tactic is to skip the meeting, but have one of the attendees give you a five minute capsule of what happened. If the question comes up, then you can talk intelligently about the meeting. It also encourages subordinates to pay attention in the meeting.

So here is the capsule: If you must attend a meeting, give 100 percent of your attention to the meeting. Don‘t waste your time and everyone else’s by using that electronic appendage to ping-pong email to another time-waster. Focus on being a leader, not an email clerk.