Idea to retire: The “rock star” chief information officer

For fans of rock and roll (and of a certain age), the concept of rock star is forever rooted in performers like Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones standing in a single spotlight, bathed in sweat, belting out the distinctive words to songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to the deafening cheers of a packed stadium. Anyone who ever attended a rock concert can remember the goosebumps that rose on their arms at that moment as well as the belief that the rock star could do anything.

The term “rock star” has long since escaped its roots in music and now describes extraordinary people in all phases of life. This is also true in the world of IT, where job postings regularly appear looking for “rock star programmers”, “rock star analysts” and even “rock star tech writers”!

But nowhere is the term “rock star” more commonly applied that towards a chief information officer (CIO) and, at various times, the CIOs of Intel, HP and Microsoft (among many others) have been anointed as rock star CIOs.

The term has crept into the lexicon of government and the first U.S. CIO, Vivek Kundra, is often referred to as the first rock star CIO in government. In fact, Kundra is popularly credited with first applying the term to people he wanted to attract into the federal workforce.

Within government, the term has been is commonly used to apply to high profile CIOs who, after having highly visible success in the private sector, move to the public sector with a mandate to bring their “rock star magic” to government. Underlying this move is a belief that the career government CIO somehow lacks the magic that a rock star can bring to the role of CIO.

There have been numerous examples of these rock stars and their success has been uneven. For each Vivek Kundra rock star story, a multitude of failed rock stars exist.

Kristin Russell, former CIO for the state of Colorado, is a good example of this. Formerly a very highly regarded vice president at Oracle, Russell was hired with a long technology to-do list in Colorado. Early on in her appointment, she was named as a top performer by “Government Technology” and her future (and Colorado’s) seemed bright. However, after just two years on the job, Russell was forced to resign for allegedly not following Colorado’s strict procurement laws.

This uneven performance has not stopped government from hiring wildly successful private sector CIOs and hoping for success in the public sector. Newly appointed U.S. CIO, Tony Scott, is a great example of this. After decades of experience with VMware, The Walt Disney Co., and Microsoft (among others), Scott took his first position in government as the U.S. CIO.

While it is far too early to judge Scott’s effectiveness, research that I jointly conducted with Kevin Desouza and James Denford suggest that myth of the rock star CIO does not align with the realities of the rock star CIO and, as a result, is an idea that must die.

While undeniably, a government rock star CIO can be successful, success is far more likely if the CIO is a career government employee rather than a rock star. There are several reasons for this.

First, in government, the CIO is surrounded by career employees who have deep knowledge and great respect for the process of government IT. That is, career employees know the rules of government and, while they might not always like them, understand the need to follow them. A CIO coming from the private sector (like Kirstin Russell) may not be aware of the rules and risks violating them to great personal and professional detriment.

Secondly (and closely related to our first point), government employees, realizing that the incoming rock star CIO is unlikely to stay for long, are aware that they can simply wait out the new CIO. Given that these rock stars rarely last for more than two years (often only a single full budget cycle), a career employee risks very little in stonewalling the newly arrived rock star. By the time the rock star realizes that he or she is being stonewalled, they have to start the long and laborious process for removing the employee. Often, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, particularly if the rock star CIO has already realized that government is harder to transform than originally believed and is looking for another position.

Thirdly, agency directors (or mayors or legislators) are generally unwilling to risk implementing a major initiative simply based on the star power of the rock star, even if they were responsible for bringing in the rock star. Major initiatives are politically risky and a certain level of trust is necessary to implement them. These initiatives require the CIO to have (or to develop) trust with all levels of the agency as well as key stakeholders outside of the agency.  Even for the best rock star, this does not happen overnight. As a result, the rock star either needs to build the necessary trust or try to ram through an initiative that is not sufficiently supported by key stakeholders. While this strategy rarely works in the private sector, it never works within government and the rock star is most often stymied.

The idea that the rock star CIO will save government needs to die and be replaced for something much less heroic and sexy: the career government employee becoming a CIO. While the career government employee lacks the panache of the rock star, our research shows that they are overwhelmingly more successful than the rock star. The career CIO knows the rules of government, has relationships with employees and consulting firms and has likely engendered the trust of the key stakeholders.

This is not to say that a rock star CIO could not be successful, but if this is the route that is taken, careful attention needs to be paid to how the rock star is introduced and included in the organization. The rock star needs to build credibility and trust prior to immediately implementing new ideas. Over time, the rock star will create trust with the key stakeholders and only then can the rock star begin to implement their ideas. If the rock star is unwilling or unable to take this long term view, government is better off by appointing a career government CIO who has already developed that trust.

In short, either the rock star CIO needs to learn to sing in harmony with the other players in government or not take the position. After all, there are a number of excellent career employees who can capably perform the job.