The Joy and Pain of Being Right

A few years ago now, I was responsible for the implementation of a rather large data-centre. I had my network team working on the design around the clock. One day, they came into my office and presented their design; it was very technical, but within five minutes I had some very serious concerns – as far as I could see they’d missed a fundamental requirement. However, instead of listening to my questions and thoughts on their design, they attempted to steam-roller past. I’m no CCIE, but I was sure they had the wrong end of the stick. They on the other hand were determined to tell me they hadn’t. Eventually I lost my cool and shouted at them. I hate getting angry – it’s usually a sign of failure, but at the time, it felt like my only option. Then they listened and eventually agreed that they had, at best, misunderstood what they were supposed to be designing, at worst designed it completely wrong.

It was a weird day; As I said, I hate losing my temper, but on the plus side I’d avoided a costly mistake in the design of the data-centre. However, it’s a good example of one of the best and worst characteristics of a CIO; we generally have to be right or at least believe we’re right. Every day, we deal with senior technical professionals who know their technology field far better than we ever can and yet we have to have the confidence to challenge, question and reality check. Technology functions aren’t the only place where this happens either; wherever there are knowledge-based professionals with deep technical knowledge, it exists. Doctors and Lawyers being prime examples, and I say that as the son of a highly experienced and gifted Doctor!

Having to be right all the time has its place; if I’d not made my network team review their design we’d have spent £250k on network equipment we didn’t need. However, there’s also a dark side and we need to have the gumption to know when to be right at the right time and in the right context. As an easy example, the Senior Leadership Meeting, Exec or Board meeting is not the place to be right the whole time and if you plough that particular furrow it could lead to unpleasant exchanges and possibly something more serious.

If we’re going to be successful CIOs, being right has to be matched with the ability to recognise the appropriate situations in which to exercise the right to be right and when it’s best to keep our powder dry.  There will be battles that can be fought another day and sometimes that can have a very positive outcome if managed appropriately.

I’ve often found meeting up with the person whose point of view I disagree with (and know is wrong) in private outside of any formal meetings is often the best way to resolve the point of contention. And we have to recognise that going into that meeting there may well be a need for compromise on both sides. This is politics and I don’t like politics, but sometimes for the good of the company and your credibility, politics have to be played.

If you want to be right and maintain that ability, you must have a willingness to learn. If you sit down with your technical teams and find out what they’re doing and take away some learnings from them, they’re far more likely to listen to your point of view when you give them it and your decision making is going to be based on their up-to-date information and thinking. You’re never going to be that CCIE, but there will be some respect for your viewpoint if they can see a willingness to learn. And it goes without saying that you need to learn from the rest of the Senior Leadership Team or Exec; being curious is a must-have trait for being right!

In addition, I delegate many of the technical strategic decisions to my technical leaders. If they have helped me come to an informed decision in which they contributed, they are more likely to engage with me later on down the line. I also learn from their explanation of how they came to their conclusion which in turn helps my understanding of their technical remit.

Finally, if we must be right so often, there will always be instances when we turn out to be wrong. Being magnanimous, acknowledging it and reversing out may seem like a failure, but a failure to U-turn because you want to be right is even worse than being wrong. In politics, a U-turn is seen as a failure, in business the failure is not acknowledging failure and doing something about it; A U-Turn is absolutely the right thing to do when you’re wrong!

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