CIOs must lead outside of IT

CIOs must lead outside of IT

A set of contradictions lies at the heart of information technology leadership: be strategic, but remain operational; stay secure while boosting innovation; adopt emerging technologies, but not at the expense of tradition.

Many chief information officers have buckled under this so-called CIO paradox, while others have managed to be effective in spite of it. In working with many successful CIOs over the years, I have found that they all share a common set of practices, philosophies and approaches.

We are currently undergoing a computing renaissance, and all CIOs will need to raise their game and master this set of practices. Here are three strategies for CIOs looking to break out of the paradox.

1. Sell the foundation

Most large companies have underinvested in IT for decades. They’ve spent the bare minimum, and since IT has only been expected to function in a ‘keep the lights on’ capacity, they’ve gotten by: as long as the mainframe systems aren’t broken, let’s not fix them.

Today, however, technology innovation is creating drastic changes across all major industries in the way customers want to interact with their suppliers. Companies can no longer get away with treating IT as a commodity: these companies owe a technical debt, and it’s time to pay up.

Most CIOs find it relatively easy to convince an executive team to invest in a technology that will increase near-term revenue.

They find it considerably harder to get their colleagues to invest in a major infrastructure upgrade that will take 12 months or more before delivering direct business benefit. But all CIOs need to find a way to convince their peers that without these infrastructure investments, they will be mortgaging their company’s future.

Through visuals, storytelling and metaphors that resonate with the company’s business leaders, CIOs must show their stakeholders that foundational investments are the table stakes of innovation. If they don’t, they will get crushed between the rock of legacy technologies and the hard place of business demand.

2. Grow blended executives

Companies that underinvest in IT most likely underinvest in IT talent as well.

A strong IT leader must possess a potent mix of business acumen, technology know-how and interpersonal skills.

High-performing IT organisations appoint executives to manage the intersection of business and IT, helping business leaders to shape their IT strategies and marshalling a technology team to deliver on their demands.

Ideally, these ‘business relationship executives’ would have two heads: one for business and one for technology. But since cloning is still an imperfect science – and because these ‘blended’ executives are in short supply in the talent market – most companies will need to grow their own.

The most effective approach to developing blended executives is to develop a program that rotates IT people into business roles, and businesspeople into IT roles.

But regardless of which approach a company takes, it needs to start now. In the current war for IT talent, companies that have to draw on outside talent for their IT leaders are at a disadvantage.

A far better strategy is to develop existing employees into blended executives. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you walk into a business unit meeting and it’s not immediately clear from the conversation who is an IT person and who isn’t.

3. Reach beyond it

The IT function is not easy to manage. IT is highly strategic, intensely operational, hard to staff and extremely expensive.

CIOs who are successful in running IT tend to develop expertise in important areas including project management, continuous improvement, mergers and acquisitions, employee development and strategic planning – disciplines that are critical to every other department in a company.

CIOs who want to be effective in the future will extend their leadership and expertise beyond the IT function. They might set up enterprise project management offices, or take the reins as their company’s continuous improvement champion.

They might also absorb the human resources, legal and procurement departments, along with IT, into a new chief shared services officer role. They will step out of their IT boxes because they know it is good for the company, and they will not wait to be asked.

With the advent of the cloud, mobility, consumerisation and big data, the CIO paradox is not disappearing – it is growing more pronounced. The contradictory forces that define IT are getting more acute, and CIOs will have to work harder than ever to perform.

Those who are already struggling under the paradox will continue to struggle. But those who can rise to the occasion, overcome the paradox and deliver value in our new technology marketplace will secure leadership positions in what promises to be an exciting new era.

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates and author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership.


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