“Setting” Yourself up for Success

“Setting” yourself up for Success?

I had a very interesting experience recently.  I attended the Premier Events CIO Summit, a fantastic 2-day event for CIOs and their Direct Reports to network, collaborate and learn (www.premiercio.com).  I was asked to be interviewed by Executive Leaders Radio hosted by my friend, Christine Miles from CI Squared (www.cisquared.net).  During our interview Christine asked me several questions about my youth, my family and my participation in sports.  Most of our discussion centered around how the activities and experiences of my past influenced my career and leadership philosophies as a CIO.  Then she asked me a question that I had a bit of trouble answering.  She learned in the interview that I played volleyball in college.  Not being the tallest of players, I was the setter.  She probed deeper and asked me for the setter’s responsibilities.  I explained that when the ball comes over the net, a back-row player typically passes the ball to the front row and the setter always takes the pass and sets one of the tall guys who spikes (kills) the ball for a point.  The question with which I struggled: “How did being a setter relate to my role as a CIO?”  I never thought of that before.  I guess that is why Christine is an interviewer and I am a CIO.

Let’s dig (sorry, bad volleyball pun) a little deeper into the role of a setter.  Remember the part about the back-row player passing the ball to the setter?  While the ball is in the air, all the other players start yelling numbers out, telling the setter that they are ready to spike.  The tall guy on the left, called the “Outside” yells “4” telling the setter he is in position and wants me to set the ball to him.  The tall guy on the right, called the “Opposite” yells “5” telling the setter he wants to hit.  The really tall guy in the middle, the “Middle Blocker” calls out “1” if he wants a short set (just above the net for a quick hit) or “2” for a higher set.  The back-row players also call out requests to be set such as “A”, “C”, and “Pipe”.  Way too deep for this discussion.

The important thing to remember is that, as the setter, I can only make one set on each play.  I have four or five teammates all yelling at me for the set and I can only make one of them happy.  I know which players hit better and will probably be more successful getting our team the point.  But this is a team sport, maybe the epitome of team sports, and all need to be happy and are needed to win.  Sound familiar?

As a CIO, I have many users yelling their number in my ear.  They use email, helpdesk requests, phone calls, and “drive-bys”.  They all want me to set them up for the point, satisfy their need.  Much like the volleyball setter, I have limited resources.  I may have more than one option but surely not enough for all requests.  I know which users will gain the best advantage from receiving their solution first, but I need all users to be successful or IT fails in its duties as a trusted service provider and Strategic Business Partner.  And I’m not alone.  No one in business has all the resources they need.  We all play the prioritization game.  AP gets more invoice requests than can be entered on some days.  HR gets recruiting requests at a rate faster than they can respond.  In manufacturing and distribution, customers sometimes order more products than we can make and ship on time (a great problem to have, much better than excess capacity and no orders).

Like most team sports, it comes down to trust.  The hitters know that I can only set one person.  They need to trust that I will make the best decision based on our talent and the defense I anticipate.  They also need to trust that I will do my best to “spread the love” on subsequent plays.  Eventually, everyone will get a chance to score.  And when they do, my job is to celebrate with them.  So too as a CIO, and other leadership roles, your Strategic Business Partners need to trust that you are using the resources at your disposal in the best, most effective manner possible.  And they need to trust that you will “spread the IT love” as soon as you can.  Building this trust takes time, in sports as well as business.  If I ignore a hitter for too long, I will hear it from that player and the coach.  If I ignore a helpdesk request for too long, I will hear it from the requester and my boss.

                                        “We earn trust in drips and lose it in buckets”

Ways to capture the drips, earn the trust and help drive success in volleyball and business:

  1. Be objective – Don’t prioritize your attention based on personal relationships. It happens more often than you think.  Prioritize to give your team the best chance at success.
  2. Be honest – Transparency to your team and your users builds trust. Tell your Middle Blocker that the guy across the net is an All-American and you are setting around him as a strategy.  Tell your Sales VP that you are focused on the Distribution and Shipping issue because YOUR biggest customer is in danger of a late or incomplete shipment.
  3. Celebrate successes – Make a big deal, publicly, when a player crushes a set for a point. Everyone in the gym should know how great his play was by your reaction.  Write an email and praise a user for their accomplishment.  Let everyone know they succeeded, despite getting a solution delivered late.
  4. Take the hit – Every time a hitter mishit the ball or got blocked, I thanked him for a great swing and apologized for a bad set (yep, even when the set was perfect). Then I set him again the next chance I could.  When I disappoint a user, email and apologize for delaying their deliverable.  Be honest about IT’s project load and provide realistic expectations for delivery.  Give them a little extra service as soon as possible.    Drip.
  5. Communicate – Keep everyone informed. If I detect a defensive weakness in the other team’s alignment, I may have a pre-planned strategy to set a “5 ball” to my Opposite.  I will turn my back on the other team before the play starts and put my palm against my chest, so only my team can see it, showing 5 fingers to non-verbally tell the Opposite, “you’re my guy the next chance I get.”  Everyone else knows my plans and still yells their numbers as a decoy. When the IT request backlog exceeds my resources, as it always does, reach out to the Process Owners and let them know where they are on the delivery list, why they are not number one, and when you will get to their request.  If Amazon can do it for 1.6 million deliveries per day, you can do it for the 10 users beating on you.    Drip.  Drip. Drip.

As always, your question, comments, and anecdotes are encouraged. Hit the link below.