CIO Leadership

6 Different Ways CIOs Set Priorities: How Leaders Lead Leaders

Revenue generation and financial savings are not the guides to how you prioritize work. Six areas are, but they all depend on answering the same one question.

Scott Smeester


January 19, 2023

Photo credit:
Hello I'm Nik

In the early part of the twentieth century, engineers at GE were baffled by the breakdown of a machine complex. They asked Charles Steinmetz, a retired engineer, to come in and see if he could discover the problem.

Steinmetz spent several minutes walking around and looking at the machines. He then took a piece of chalk and made a cross mark on one particular piece. When the engineers disassembled that part of that machine, they found it was the precise location of the breakdown.

The engineers received a bill from Steinmetz for $10,000. The price seemed exceptionally high, so they returned it with a request that it be itemized.

Steinmetz sent them a second and itemized bill:

Making one chalk mark: $1.00

Knowing where to put the mark: $9,999.00

Knowing Priorities

Your leadership is marked by knowing where to put the mark. Wisdom wins the day. 

And it is needed. Economic uncertainty, growth responsibility, remote work volatility, and rock bottom security demands your attention. You deal with talent competition and personnel retention, diversity of employees and burnout of employees. 

You decide between data centers, clouds, hybrids, ERPs, APIs, and how LCNC works for you. You must know the business, know the customer and create value for both.

It’s all so much. 

And if you don’t know where to put the mark, it’s too much.

When it comes to priorities, it’s easy to talk about increasing revenue and decreasing costs. Those are standard pillars and critical measures. But they are not guides. 

What guides you in the priorities that you set?

Six Ways You Set Priorities

Go On The Offense

You know the overall business outcomes the Board and CEO are driving to. Within the business, you are being asked to accomplish hundreds of IT projects. You likely have a system in place where those projects receive a scorecard or other basis of priority.

But as CIO, you have a question to ask (of yourself and of the business leaders you work with) before you have scores to assess: What one strategic initiative, if accomplished, will make all other initiatives easier or unnecessary? (The concept is introduced by Gary Keller of Keller Real Estate in his book The One Thing).

Success is a result of narrowing your concentration.

Opportunities for work do not diminish, demands are not grounded. We lose a quarter of our workday to ineffective multi-tasking. 

Going on offense is all about strategy. Strategy is about concentration. Concentration is focused on what needs to be the first one thing. There will be other one things, but the first one thing makes others easy or unnecessary.

The business leaders you work with need to be able to answer this question. You serve yourself as you serve them

Play Defense

You have seen the security landscape expand. The adage, “Defense wins championships” applies in IT as much as it does in sports. But where to begin?

What one dimension of cybersecurity, if accomplished this year, will make other security needs easier or unnecessary to deal with?

Level Up Your Leadership

Within yourself, what one improvement in leadership will be your greatest asset? 

Within your team, what one dynamic or environment or practice deserves your greatest concentration?

Dial Into Your Personnel

Of all the employee initiatives you can take on - diversity, equity and inclusion, retention, development, recruitment and remote management - what one area of progress makes the other issues less pressing or die down?

(The answer is customized and personalized development through the CIO Mastermind Advocate program, but I will let you wrestle with the question anyway).

Focus The Owners

You are answerable to another. What one thing, if you accomplished it, is what you are most answerable for this year, and puts all other responsibilities in proper focus?

Have you ever been led by someone who seemed to shift priorities based on pressure or trend? 

Have you ever dreaded their return from a conference because you knew they would focus on the latest or greatest?

Leaders who lead leaders help leaders to stay focused.

Concentrate On Your Customers

What one deliverable makes all other deliverables secondary for the time being?

One Thing Beats Overwhelm Every Time

I have too much to do. I have more opportunities than I can fulfill. I have more dreams than I can pursue.

And one thing beats overwhelm and sorting and prioritizing every time: Answering what is the One Thing that makes all other things easier, unnecessary or secondary in importance.

This works for each area of your responsibility, and it works for each area of a business’ responsibility. Focus triumphs over the frantic; limiting leverages; not everything is the right thing and everything is never the right thing.

Leaders who lead leaders don’t do everything. But they always do one thing.

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