Culture and the CIO

Did you catch the news earlier this week?   Gene De Libero and I started a new blog titled “CIO Essentials“.  Gene and I have known each other for a few years now and recently collaborated on an article for Cutter IT Journal titled “The Futureproof CIO“.  That collaboration has turned into CIO Essentials (CIOE).

I had the pleasure of writing the first article to be published on CIOE and wanted to share it here for my regular readers/subscribers.  I hope you decide to join Gene and I over at where we’ll be writing more on the topics of business, leadership, technology, and the people technology serves.

Culture and the CIO was first published on on March 1 2010.

What’s the culture of your organization?

Have you built a hard-charging, do anything organization that demands things get done now? Or are you working in an organization that thinks things through, plans them out and takes years to get anything done? Perhaps you’re somewhere between these two extremes.

Personally, I’d rather be closer to the get it done (and get it done right) scenario than planning everything to death, but I’ve seen both types of cultures work. As the CIO, before you can deliver value to your organization, you must understand the culture within your organization.

“When planning for a year, plant corn. When planning for a decade, plant trees. When planning for life, train and educate people.” – Chinese Proverb

Culture and the CIO

What is culture within an organization? Most agree that organizational culture is the shared beliefs, values and norms that are held by the people within an organization.

What are the shared beliefs of your organization? Are you focused on moving quickly to beat your competition? Are you an innovative organization that wants to be at the forefront of the market? Or are you one of those companies that like to plan things to death and take years to get anything done?

Whatever your organizational culture, you’ve got to stay in sync with that culture or you might find yourself out of a job.

Story Time

Patty is a newly hired VP of IT for a mid-sized business in Chicago. Patty’s previous employer was a large, demanding company and Patty really thrived in that type of environment – she essentially grew-up in that hard driving organization.

In her previous role, she expected her staff to be as demanding and driven as she was, and for the most part, they were. Patty had worked her way up the ranks to a Director level role but was itching to move further up the ladder. After some internal review, she quickly found a VP role that seemed like a good fit and after a few months of negotiation, she accepted the position as the top IT person within the organization.

Patty was excited to have to an opportunity to finally run her own shop. After all, she’d been working towards this opportunity her entire career. Patty had finally arrived. She was the head of IT and could implement all the really cool processes and technologies that she’d been hearing about.

Patty brought her driven, hard-charging approach to IT to her new position – and immediately flopped. The culture of her new company was a slow-moving one. The people were methodical and planned things out to the ‘nth’ degree before moving forward with a project. There were committees and task forces for everything and not a single decision was made without going through a few rounds of committee discussions. Change was tough.

The Slow Pace of Progress

Patty railed against the slow pace of progress. She drove her IT staff to ‘pick up the pace’ and drove her managers into a frenzy trying to accomplish everything she wanted to get done as quickly as possible.

Sadly (and predictably), after six months, Patty had accomplished nothing. None of the high-priority projects had been completed and most hadn’t even been started. Patty’s boss, the CFO, pulled her into his office one day and suggested that she reign things in. He shared that the organization had always taken the slow approach and that wasn’t something that was likely to change any time soon.

This slow-and-steady approach had proven to be the success factor for them. He went on to explain that, while they weren’t the industry leader, they were extremely profitable. It was their organizational culture that was the driving factor behind that success.

Patty countered with her standard argument that the organization moved too slow and that she couldn’t get anything done at that pace. She couldn’t fund any of the projects that she’d made a priority. All projects were well-vetted before being funded because every project that was funded took money away from other parts of the business.


While there are actually a few points that can be made with this story, the one I want to highlight is the cultural issues apparent.

Patty didn’t understand the role of organizational culture within the company. She didn’t understand that culture exists for a reason and that the culture is made up of the values and belief systems of the people within the organization.

Patty thought she was railing against the snail’s pace of progress, but she was actually telling every single person within that company that they were wrong. Nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong, but telling an entire organization that they way they’ve done business for years is wrong is a career suicide mission. It can be difficult to recover once you’ve alienated enough people within the organization.

Patty never recovered. She was shown the door withing a few months of her meeting with the CFO. The reason for her dismissal? She didn’t fit the ‘culture’ of the organization.

Focus on Culture

Whether you’re looking to move another organization or you’ve moved into a new role at your current company, you’ve got to consider the organizational culture while considering how you’ll reach your objectives. You can’t be successful as a fast-moving IT manager if your team’s spent the last 20 years moving slowly.

Keep organizational culture in mind while planning out your next project, job or strategic plan.

Culture and the CIO was first published on on March 1 2010.