The Art of Building a Successful IT Department

Creating and filling mission-critical IT personnel positions is a managerial art form, says Meta Group analyst Jonathan Poe. In this exclusive Datamation interview, Poe discusses finding the right people for the right jobs and how to define a successful operation.
Posted December 16, 2002

Sharon Gaudin

Creating and filling mission-critical IT personnel positions is a managerial art form -- one that's key to running a successful department, according to a Meta Group analyst.

Jonathan Poe, senior vice president at the analyst firm Meta Group, says smart CIOs know that delivering value from the IT department to the overall business starts with having the right people in the right roles. And more and more IT leaders are looking at reshaping their IT structures. Poe says between 2002 and 2003, more than 80% of global 2000 companies will overhaul their IT organizations.

Bringing in the right people is only part of the job. The other part entails creating the right positions -- in essence, creating lieutenants to serve the CIO, freeing his hands to focus on the bigger picture.

In this conversation with Datamation, Poe talks about creating a successful IT department, filling the positions carefully and defining a successful operation.

Q: Is this something that only new CIOs should think about doing?

Every CIO should be looking at it, but it is especially important for new CIOs. You need good managers to be successful. You need the right people to get the right results for you. It's amazing how few CIOs have purposeful staff positions focused on getting specific results.

If a CIO has been in his or her position for a few years, why should he or she tinker around with staff?

If you've been there for years, you have a legacy set up and staff kludges. This manager can't get along with this manager. And this group can't do that work, so you start carving out niches that don't make sense for the business.

If you're coming in as the new CIO, do you really want to start out by letting people go or rearranging staff positions?

These organizations you come into were designed for the last guy, who probably got fired. Bring in an administrative assistant and a key lieutenant...a few key people, if not a whole team, because that is what is going to make you successful.

I think you don't have to be the hatchet person. That shows poor negotiations. If you're an executive interviewing with a firm, part of your terms and conditions for coming on board should be laying out that you want a personal assistant. Tell them you work pretty well with a certain team of people or a lieutenant. Part of the negotiation should be what part of your team you can bring on board. If you're walking in as a CIO and you don't know if you can trust your admin, that's a bad start right there. The company can take care of the hatchet job before you arrive.

Isn't it generally against contract to take employees from your old job with you when you leave for a new job?

There's that argument, but most labor laws are fairly wide open in regards to taking your team with you. You see whole teams moving from one brokerage to another. Companies like to say you can't take anybody with you, but it doesn't mean you can't work around that. When an employee quits his job, he might know what his next job is going to be. And if it happens that two weeks later he's working at a different firm, then it was just an offer you couldn't refuse. Corporations will say you can't go work for a competitor but those things are hard to enforce and smart people figure out ways to get around it.

How do you figure out what specific positions you need to fill?

You need to set up positions around projects and specific operations. You need to have people who will execute specific functions for you. As a CIO or executive, you can't spend a lot of time in people development or communications, for example. You need to have a trusted lieutenant to take care of that kind of leadership.

What are some of the positions a CIO should focus on creating?

  • You should have an IT/Human Capital Management position. You want to make sure your IT guys are being effective and productive. You know how complicated some of these systems are, so you want to have the right people working for you. You can't end up with a single point of dependency on one person. As an executive, you won't have time to take care of all of this. And you need to know somebody is making sure my employees are happy, my pipeline is full and my people are being used as efficiently as possible.
  • You need an IT/Finance position. IT budgets are a significant portion of a corporation's budget. It's greater than plant and equipment, greater than facilities, greater than real estate. Most executives want to know what they're getting for that investment. On all those little projects, on all those installations, you've got to show the rate of return and value. On the upper end, this can be kind of tricky. What kinds of rates of return are proper for a risky project? As we bring in new projects and new initiatives, how do we know the assumptions are the same as last year? You need someone to take care of all of this for you.
  • An IT/Communications position. This is a very complicated industry. Not very many people are trained to understand the complexities of IT, but you can't stop communicating what you're doing on the IT side. If you don't tell the executives what you're doing, they'll tend to assume the worst. It can't be technical. I can't throw a bunch of acronyms at them. You need someone with softer skills -- someone who can communicate in non-technical language. You need somebody in charge of your messaging who can understand the business language and put IT projects into business terminology.

    So the positions you're creating aren't necessarily high-tech focused.

    They can be matrixed over. They can be in HR but they'll be assigned to report to the CIO and work for the IT shop. They need to be trained in finance or human resources or communication. These are soft IT skills, but they are important to the IT staff's functions. Some direct reports will be technical people but a lot will not be. That may be a surprise for the technically trained CIOs or executives.

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