Enter the Executive maverick : Rock Star CIO

Artificial intelligence has landed in my Executive life with a crash, bang and a wallop. And its name is Walter (its surname rhymes with Shitty).

At certain points in a long, lucky and hopefully plucky career I’ve met people who don’t fit the mould. Usually this has been in a good way – variety is the spice of life, and wouldn’t it be dull if we were all the same?. A truly inspirational leader. An equally inspirational team member with a story of bravery and an outlook to match. A peer who genuinely and generously shows you a better way. Sometimes however, it’s been the opposite. I have a few onerous individuals that come to mind that I’ve crossed paths with and just ended up thinking – “why”? This time however, this particular character seems to me to be a true one off. A gun toting maverick that would give all cowboys a bad name.

As ever, some honest background is relevant. My journey in my current organisation has so far been a positive one. Sure, a recent change of CEO – up until now my direct reporting line – has brought its challenges, but overall I’m still delivering and enjoying it, and most importantly can look myself in the mirror on a daily basis. I sense that something is now about to shift. As an afterthought to our latest restructure our CEO decided to bring in a supercharged new Exec – Walter – and he would only come if he had direct control of 3 existing C level Execs as well as his own team. And yes, I was one of the lucky 3. Within a month the other two had jumped ship – one instantly, having had previous experience of said maverick. And so with frightening speed I became unique in the Exec team. Stoically, and despite plenty of feedback and inner doubts, I decided to soldier on, reset my dial, and give the situation – and Walter – a chance. This is the story of the weeks that followed.

We live in interesting times. In business the twin eras of disruption and innovation, whilst bringing excitement, challenge and radical change, have also undoubtedly brought a huge helping of corporate paranoia. This paranoia is seeded by a combination of a small number of success stories and a vast amount of hype. If you are not on the AI / VR / AR / AV / SaaS / RaaS (insert or delete as appropriate) bandwagon, and confidently talking about it with authority, then you should give up – you obsolete old fossil. Intellectual techno-bullying is currently reaching its zenith. What has spawned and thrived from this volatile mix is the Rock Star CIO.

Techno babble has been around a long time. And whilst it is irrefutable that technology is on the cusp of changing the world, and travelling at a trajectory that makes the advances of the last couple of decades look positively snail like, rest assured that the babble is still very much alive and kicking, and is still the lions share over substance. Back when the heavyweights of IT convinced us all that the world was about to end when 1999 moved into 2000 (remember that? The biggest con job of all time!), at least the leaders of IT were generally still the understated geeky type who knew a lot about their subject matter but also knew their limitations. Today these boundaries have been ripped apart, and after a few weeks of Walter, I, for one, see this as a very bad and scary change.

It seems to me that the pace of disruptive change across so many facets of life and business means that no one can truly keep up. Even the online concept pedlars and habitual conference attendees struggle to keep abreast and let’s face it, for most of them, that’s pretty much their only job! The chances of truly keeping up when doing a real gritty executive role is zero. What results in most boardrooms is classic “in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king” syndrome. Particularly if they have the loudest voice, most vivid imagination and biggest capacity to spin a compelling tale. Even more so if they are a CIO, or even better a CIDO. Enter Walter.

So what has he actually done? How can you be sure that this isn’t just good old fashioned sour grapes from a demoted, demotivated old has been? Well, let’s start with something I, perhaps naively and old fashionedly, hold very close to my heart – the truth. The truth and Walter seem to have an uneasy relationship that verges on outright avoidance. Whether it is simple chit chat about clear cut events or mutual acquaintances in the dim and distant past, or totally incorrect validations of simple conversations with my team members only a few minutes after the event, Walter seems to invent his own truth. Very quickly everyone in his slipstream recognises this. The only person who believes his version is Walter. And of course his subservient boss, the CEO. Whilst the lack of truth alone is enough of a red flag, when this gets coupled with more serious subjects of a deeply personal nature, that will always occur in big teams, it starts to feel like a more fundamental battle between right and wrong. Wildly inaccurate portrayals of deeply personal issues, reasons for leaving, lack of comfort around personal space, weird invitations to females only alcohol fuelled lunches in his windowless office – and yes, it is a “he”, watch out for the #metoo campaign to strike soon – all of this is more than just avoidance of truth. In medieval times he would have either been an Emporer or burnt at the stake as a witch. After a couple of months close observation I’d have burnt him without hesitation.

I started my relationship with him openly. I believed I could learn a lot from him. And I told him. He has undoubted skills. His understanding of the new landscape is strong albeit slightly romantic and whimsical. The “beauty” of technology features a lot. He can sell coal to the devil. The PR department has been on overdrive. And all seemingly great futuristic and image changing stuff for the company, and always with a picture of a smiling Walter alongside it. However even these stories don’t hold water internally. It would only take a pretty blunt pencil to scratch the surface and uncover that almost all of these “breakthroughs” are in fact mirages built on quicksand. But with the unerring support of the increasingly limited and floundering CEO, no pencil is reached for, and a seemingly blinded Main Board suck it all up.

Then there are the most telling parts of the equation. The parts that actually make the man. One to one, nothing but praise. An open forum in front of his wider team, the abuse flows viciously and randomly. Small mans syndrome at its finest. Motivation by head working, which is as far from genuine leadership driving development as it gets. The stories around the business grow wilder and more bizarre on a daily basis. 3am calls demanding immediate action. A team brought in to clear his flat. Suppliers treated appallingly. Demands of the airport authorities to allow him runway access to meet his wife directly from the plane. A veritable carousel of PA’s – 6 in 10 weeks at latest count. I have quickly concluded that what I want to learn from Walter is a series of “never do’s”. But more than that, I want him exposed for what he is. If truth and right prevail this cannot be far away.

The world is made up of many and varied characters with the one thing in common – each one thinks that they are good and righteous. Therefore it’s only external perspective on their actions that differentiates an Adolf Hitler from a Mother Theresa. Business is no different. Every executive desperately wants to make their mark, be seen in a positive light and leave a legacy. My plea to all aspiring to do so is to not be tempted to blur the line between right and wrong. Find ways to check in on yourself, whether through honest feedback from trusted consorts, casual reflective walks in the wilderness or a long hard and regular stare in the mirror. Call what you see, and let’s drive the Walters of this world out and build a more genuine future for ourselves and those who will follow. Rock stars should be rock stars. CIOs should be CIOs.

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