Someone posed a question on LinkedIn’s “CIO Network” discussion board the other day – “Can a CIO be effective as both a strategic leader and a hands-on manager?“
It’s a question that’s as relevant to non-IT leaders as it is to CIOs, don’t you think? Here’s what how I answered it:
The key, to me, is not whether a CIO CAN be effective as both a strategic leader and a hands-on manager, but WHEN a CIO should be a strategic leader and when s/he should be more hands-on.
Being too hands-on when strategic leadership is needed will make you look like an untrusting, micro-managing, bureaucrat – “Hey, quit doing MY job and do your own,” they’ll say.
Being too strategic when hands-on support is what’s called for will make you look obtuse, cartoonish, and irrelevant – “Hey, we need some real help here, not just your pie-in-the-sky platitudes and rhetoric.”
Mismatch the approach enough times (or at the wrong times) and your reputation will suffer significant, lasting, and unflattering results. Mismatch the approach enough times (or at the wrong times) and your organization will suffer even worse in terms of morale, engagement, productivity, creativity, politics, blame, obfuscation, and such.
So how do you know which to be when?
My rule of thumb – the Mess Test – if you know how you’d clean up the mess if things go terribly, terribly, wrong, stay strategic. But if you’re not sure how you’d mop up should things go awry, be more hands-on.
The Mess Test won’t work in EVERY situation, but it’s a good North Star to check your decisions. And by asking yourself, more regularly, precisely how WOULD you mop things up, if need be, you’ll naturally improve BOTH your strategic leader and hands-on manager competencies.