Brilliance: The CIO’s most seductive career-limiting trait

Good leaders get things done. Great leaders build organizations that get things done.

As a leader, being thought of as a source of the great ideas that help get things done is a three-fold liability, especially when you’re working with executive peers outside of IT.

The first fold is that if a brilliant idea has your name on it, your peers will have to acknowledge how smart you are in order to support it. That might be good for your ego. But to them it might feel like they’re acknowledging that you’re smarter than they are.

Not a good feeling, and you’d be responsible for their feeling it.

The second fold is that if you’re the one who has the brilliant ideas, it signals that IT can’t function effectively without you to supply the ideas that make it work.

That might sound like just the ticket for you and your career. But what it’s actually the ticket to is career stasis, because it signals that you aren’t building an organization that gets things done, not to mention that you’re fostering the risk that you might win the lottery.

One more fold: If you spend too much time touting your own brilliance, you’re encouraging a perception that you don’t spend enough time discovering good (and applicable) ideas other people have had.

The career-limiting success of brilliant ideas

Having brilliant ideas is a staff function when it isn’t the role of outside consultants or authors you can (ahem) find on Amazon.

Putting “ideas” in context, we human beings practice five levels of cognition:

Data: verifiable factsInformation: the stuff that reduces uncertaintyKnowledge: abstract concepts that are supported by data and informationJudgment: the application of experience to knowledgeWisdom: knowledge combined with knowledge of one’s own limitations

A brilliant idea — or, for that matter, any idea — counts as knowledge. And knowledge is, to use the technical term, a Good Thing.

But as an executive you aren’t being paid for your knowledge. That’s a staff-level responsibility, and you should encourage it among IT staff. You, however, are being paid for good judgment and wisdom. So, having your own brilliant ideas puts you, paradoxically enough, in a subordinate role with respect to your organizational peers.

It isn’t that you aren’t supposed to be smart. It’s that your intelligence is supposed to be about recognizing, championing, and promoting — in a word, brokering — the great ideas that surround you. As an idea broker you apply your judgment and wisdom to the ideas you’re surrounded by, to figure out which ones might matter most.

Wanting everyone to think you’re the smartest person in the room is, that is, a career-limiting attitude.

Fostering a culture of innovation

To be clear, this guideline is about you, not about the organization you lead. Wanting the rest of the company to view your organization as a source of great ideas and solutions is an entirely different matter and something to be prized.

But leading an IT organization so it becomes a source of great ideas and solutions is harder than it might seem, for several reasons.

First and foremost, you probably haven’t built “identifies and champions important and innovative opportunities” into everyone’s job descriptions. Not that employees pay all that much attention to their job descriptions, but still, if it’s something you want it’s probably something you should ask for.

Second, your IT managers and supervisors probably don’t encourage having brilliant and innovative thoughts in their day-to-day staff management. And who can blame them? They have day-to-day operational responsibilities already. Adding innovation support is, in their minds, likely to be more distraction than opportunity.

And third, you probably don’t have an innovation budget to support any great ideas that do make it into your inbox. No budget means the only ideas that might succeed are those that are free. And those that are free are likely to be viewed with suspicion by your cybersecurity team.

What can you do so you have a continuous supply of ideas worth brokering?

Here are two low-cost steps you can take to get things rolling: (1) require every IT staff member to spend one hour a week researching and reading. Having everyone take time to find out What’s Going On Out There can only help.

And, (2) think of innovation in the context of culture change. Culture is, loosely defined, “how we do things around here,” and making it clear that innovating is part of how we do things around here is the single best tool you have to institutionalize it.

Successful change always starts with culture change. That’s an idea that’s definitely worth brokering.

Business IT Alignment, IT Leadership