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IT Leadership: Are You Playing Defense or Offense?

Nov 07, 2019 | By Amy Robertson

IT Leadership

As CIO, are you and IT in a strong, offensive position? Or are you often defending or playing catch up?

At Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo just a couple weeks ago, Gartner Analyst Tina Nunno shared some valuable insight to help CIOs recognize the key differences between defensive and offensive leadership positions. I sat in, among hundreds of IT leaders, to gather some intel and summarize for our readers…

Shifting from Defense to Offense

Would you describe your current role as reactive, often resisting attack or appeasing others? IT Leaders that find themselves retreating more often than creating forward motion are, in fact, playing defense. Offensive leadership demonstrates proactive call playing, assertion, and often results in “scoring points” for IT, its leadership, or the enterprise. Nunno outlines some core principles of offensive leadership, including:

But as Nunno highlights, shifting to offense does not mean being offensive. An appropriate leadership offense is careful not to be aggressive, reckless, insensitive, or selfish and will allow CIOs to better partner and prevent these behaviors in colleagues as well.

Step 1: Articulate Your Values

If you’re asking yourself “How do I begin the shift to offense?”, Nunno notes that leadership positioning begins with deciding what you are willing to fight for. Consider this simple checklist as a guide to getting started:

Step 2: Decide Your Brand and Reputation

As a next step, decide your brand and reputation instead of letting others decide for you. First, you must understand how others perceive you (reputation) and then focus on shifting that perception if it’s not the personal brand you desire. Nunno recommends a quick and easy exercise to determine perception and reality.

Question 1: How would your CEO describe you today in three words? Not sure? Go ahead, ask!

Would he/she use adjectives like responsible, cooperative, or friendly?

Question 2: What three words would you prefer the CEO use in 3 months?

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear innovative, effective, and strategic instead?

How do you impact others’ perception and influence your brand to shift to these desired descriptors?

Use offensive communication.

Example 1: When discussing revenue growth initiatives, focus conversation around “income” to gain perception of being strategic.

Example 2: When discussing productivity initiatives, use words such as “cost savings” to be viewed as efficient.

Example 3: When discussing regulatory and compliance initiatives, reference “risks mitigated” for others to view you as responsible.

Example 4: When discussing R&D or emerging technologies, “game changers” is an ear-catching term that could shift your brand perception to innovative.

Step 3: Communicate Successes First

…and issues second (and only when said issues matter). It’s all too common for IT leadership to begin conversations and presentations with what went wrong — deadlines and SLAs not met, for example. Oftentimes, IT Leaders find themselves asking permission to share what went right, keeping a constant negative theme around IT.

Instead, flip the sequence! Imagine the change in conversation if every discussion started with “Here’s what we did well…” Or the change in perception if every presentation started with “We’ve delivered X business value in these areas…”

Yes, some things went wrong. So what? Stop apologizing. Be intentional and consider the proportion of communication. Actively promote successes to shift to offense.

Step 4: Get on the Offense with Customers/Consumers/Colleagues

Another important internal shift must take place with IT’s “customers” (the consumers of IT’s services). To get on the offense, IT Leaders should reset expectations that customers are external enterprise customers. Repositioning to not use “customer” to describe anyone internal will help avoid conversations around “making customers happy” and customers “always being right.” As Nunno points out in her presentation, happy is not a business objective and internal focus will keep IT Leaders on defense. An external focus puts IT Leadership on offense and empowers the team to drive higher value back to the organization.

In addition, it’s important to determine responsibilities and commitments for internal requests. Establishing time, materials, and milestones for ALL parties- CIO and IT, Vendor and Consultants, and Requesting Function/Business Unit- is an exercise that outlines everyone’s time is valuable (one isn’t more valuable than any other).

Set terms and conditions on access to resources. Once resources are fully estimated and dedicated, then work can begin. One potential way to go about this:

Step 5: Treat Budget as an Offensive Asset

Typically, budget is viewed as a weakness – a pain often absorbed by IT. This defensive approach is often voiced as “We can’t do anymore” or “We’re short on budget.” Enterprise budget constraints should be shared, and IT Leaders must drive realistic behaviors by showing stakeholders the funding and resource lines. Giving stakeholders allocations, requiring business value math, and shifting the conversation to “We don’t do unfunded initiatives” can help shift from the defensive.

To take it a step further on the offense, CIOs should challenge leadership and the board for MORE budget. Accepting what you’ve been given naturally puts the IT Leader in a defensive position- with a mindset of “I’ll do the best I can with what I’ve got.” Feeling up to the challenge of asking for more? Start with a positive and accommodating response to budget- “I will create a plan that fits the current budget…” and then challenge by offering options- “…but in case you’re interested, here’s a detailed list of things we could do if we had more money and resources.”

Increasing your budget? Now, THAT is playing offense.

Inflection Point – How many initiatives did IT propose or initiate last year? And how many were approved and budgeted?

Step 6: Practice Verbal Techniques to Stay in a Strong Position

…and in a positive way.

In Summary

Moving from defense to offense requires a collection of many things listed above, including actively promoting successes, driving realistic behaviors, proactively initiating, and oftentimes catching and pivoting. Position yourself as a strategic leader in your organization and be intentional about getting and staying there.

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