CIO Development

Article So you want to be a CIO

Original paper by Brinley Platts for the NCC Journal

Are you a CIO? Do you aspire to be one? I have asked literally hundreds of senior IT executives these questions. I know a lot about what makes IT executives tick and a lot about what makes CIOs successful; the two do not always go hand in hand.

Surveys from the USA suggest that the average job tenure of a CIO is down to two years. Two years is plenty of time to get things wrong – ample time to “fail” but not a lot of time to implement the major change the organisation hired you for. If the average is down to 24 months then there are an awful lot of CIOs out there not completing what they have begun. This is why the first 100 days are so critical. You have to display the first rule of leadership: “When given command, take control.”

Scope of the role
IT can contribute to an organisation broadly on three levels and good CIOs deliver at all of them. At the lowest level, characterised by McKinsey as “stay in the race,” IT is still the ultimate service deliverer and few if any large organisations could function today without the support of effective information systems reliably delivered to a high standard. More than this, many organisations over the last 10 years have been actively seeking to use IT to add value to various parts of the business, in “win the race” mode. This is obviously not something an IT function can impose on a business so “Partnership”, teamworking, dialogue become more important.

The ultimate level of IT contribution, what McKinsey calls “change the rules”, is when the CEO invites the CIO to help re-think and create the future of the entire organisation. This only happens when the CEO believes that the CIO has something of value to contribute at this level. Instead of wondering whether you will be invited to sit at the strategy table you should ask: “have I become the kind of executive that would influence strategy discussions? Do I have a broad enough understanding of the business and a vision of how it could be transformed? Have I built relationships with other executive directors?”

This last point has become more important with each decade. Building and maintaining rapport requires you to think and act as your customer does. IT creates dependencies very quickly and while it may be fine for some functions of a large organisation to work relatively independent of each other IT needs to be able to work with, support and create value with all of them simultaneously. Trust is absolutely key: each executive director has to trust you will deliver.

Main Challenges
CIOs find themselves at the forefront of business change and this can be a battleground. Major projects promise big benefits they often do not deliver. They can obviously fail for technical reasons and with the plethora of consultant support available today it really shouldn’t happen. But big projects still frequently fail to deliver big benefits even when there is no technical failure. The reasons usually boil down to the business not changing in the way the business case anticipated. No-one wants to take the blame and if you find yourself head to head with an executive alley cat, you may be ill-equipped to survive.

If you manage to keep out of the politics, you have the opportunity to “challenge and influence business strategy.” This means that as you witness the rough and tumble of executive life you can make strategic interventions. You could convince the CEO (sometimes over your own boss’s head) that there is a far more elegant and cost-effective business model available (probably web-enabled) that can cut out reams of people and paperwork, transform process and bring more control to the centre making the enterprise leaner, stronger and more responsive. Or more likely you avoid doing this despite its obvious return for shareholders because you know you would not last two minutes with that alleycat whom you would have now backed into a corner and prodded with a sharp stick. Challenging business strategy is probably best left to your boss and if you cannot get him or her to do it there may be a good reason (it may just be about survival).

Assuming you have not become consumed by any of the above you should be in good shape to pursue challenge number four: alignment. If you do make it to CIO you may get a new take on this old chestnut and make a truly awful discovery. One reason you find it so difficult to achieve and maintain “alignment with the business” is because the business is often not aligned with itself. CEOs find ways of achieving consensus and curtailing untrammelled personal ambition but the equilibrium attainted can be unstable and although it won’t say so in the Annual Report changes in direction, mergers and de-mergers can be pursued for the most personal of reasons.

Personal Characteristics
Successful CIOs have the same personal strengths we find in other senior executives. The role can accommodate the full range of leadership styles from extrovert, charismatic through to the gentler style of “people persons.” When we ask CIOs as a group to list their most important personal characteristics these are the top four:

1. Good project manager or change manager
One of the most impressive CIOs I have worked with over the last 10 years is nearing retirement. When I asked him what he put his success down to he thought for a minute and told me “I am a good project manager who happens to understand IT.” CIOs are often among the best change managers in the organisation for this very reason.

2. Excellent communicator
Everyone by now must surely have got the message that if you talk like a plumber you will be treated like a plumber – but the truth is, relating IT to business in a compelling and engaging way, without using jargon, is difficult. This can be a very big deal to your CEO and executive colleagues so you must not fall into the trap. If all anyone at senior levels wants to talk to you about is IT you might be making this mistake. Most good CIOs claim to be better at the one-to-one but they are also highly competent in groups, and they are able to “sell” their vision both to their executive colleagues who will endorse it and to their teams who will deliver it.

3. Good leadership
Surely one of the most talked about and least understood executive issues – “leadership” – exercises and stretches CIOs a good deal. Here are my top three myths of IT leadership:

Leaders are born, not made; it isn’t something you can learn.
The British are not generally good at leadership.
IT professionals tend to be introverted and task oriented. They do not make good leaders.

All these, and possibly other favourites you may hold dear, are hopeless generalisations that fly in the face of the evidence.

There are key distinctions between being a good leader and a good manager. Managers manage process and leaders lead people. This shows up most clearly in times of change and change is often, perhaps always what being a CIO is all about. CIOs feel the strain of leadership and yet relatively few of them have taken advantage of formal leadership development. They should, it can make a big difference not only to their personal performance but to the team they are leading as well.

4. Stamina and Determination
It is interesting that this should come up as a top four personal characteristic – something that CIOs share with CEOs. There is a doggedness about good CIOs. They tend to be driven by some vision, or inner need to find a better way – often expressed as a need “to make a difference.” However they express it, it is a deep drive to improve things and they do not give up easily.

Critical Success Factors
Winning the trust of senior colleagues and using it as a basis for building relationships is essential because IT builds dependencies more quickly than other functions. Missed deadlines, undelivered functionality, cost overruns are all deeply disturbing to your executive colleagues and it is not enough to explain away the problems – they know that IT is tough to manage, they just expect you to buffer them from that.

Developing people and empowering the team is also regarded by top CIOs as a CSF. This surely explodes some of the myths around personality types and leadership styles. A top class IT management team is essential and CIOs have to create the environment for talent to be developed and flourish. Try asking yourself the question: “Why would anyone choose to work here?” If you cannot immediately come up with a compelling answer ask yourself what you need to do about it.

A good and trusting relationship with the CEO is essential, and a trend to switch CIO reporting to the CEO was evident in the 90s but there are downsides to this. For one, he or she may be unwilling to get into some of the detail the CIO may want to share from time to time. But perhaps the most significant problem a direct reporting line can cause is it can breed fear and mistrust in your executive colleagues and this is self- defeating.

So recently I have begun to revise my views about reporting to the FD, provided he or she is of the strategic financial engineering and not the bookkeeping persuasion. With the right FD you can create a powerful force for delivering change and your CEO and executive colleagues will consider you essential for that delivery.

The fourth CIO CSF is being willing to take the lead on important IT initiatives. This one sorts the men from the boys. The days of the robber baron IT directors who led the business through technology are long gone and no one wants to return to them. But infrastructure, architecture, and global standards can be critical and this can occasionally mean going against a senior executive himself of the robber baron mentality. This can be tough and lonely. The best do it because they know it is right – the second rule of leadership.

Last on my list of key factors for success is so obvious I nearly missed it. You must, of course, have the trust and support of your own team – and you shouldn’t take this for granted. There are many ways to inspire loyalty and to engender excitement and energy. You need to find your way – learn the techniques but be your own person. If you are open and honest with your team and you encourage them to be the same you will be creating a culture that will suit the best on your team and they will support the rest.

So, given that the CIO is such a tough, lonely and perhaps unappreciated role why are IT executives queuing up to become CIOs?

First, if you are going to be anything other than a skilled technician (and plenty of people in IT prefer to remain exactly that) you might as well try to get to the top. The middle management of any discipline is an uncomfortable place and the true target of the Dilbert cartoons.
The higher up the hierarchy you go the more you get to influence what actually happens and at the top you can have so much influence it can be scary. One CIO recently confessed to me that he was elated to get the job after a major merger but terrified of what he had taken on. “At the beginning there was just me, the CIO – everything else had to be created”. If that sounds a little like the beginning of the world then I guess that is what it felt like. Executives of all disciplines will tell you that to be a significant part of the creative process, to make a real difference, is probably their major source of job satisfaction.

A curious thing about being a CIO is that so few people have done it before and the rules are being constantly re-written. This satisfies a particular type of executive, those who revel in having to work out how and whether it can be done. This is a peculiar kind of intellectual risk-taking, similar to entrepreneurialism but without the terminal downside: until recently that is. With CIO tenures shortening all the time the post world might be different again. One thing is certain – the top IT executive job in any organisation is likely to get more not less demanding, and it is that that gets some people out of bed in the morning.

But perhaps the biggest motivator of all for CIOs is that they are doing the most important and exciting work that an IT career can offer, and all of us in IT work will know that is saying a lot. A good CIO, in a moving organisation will get a daily fix of leadership and change, technology and relationships. He or she will be frequently under-fire but will have the protection and support of those few in the organisation who have seen the future and want it created. They cannot do it without the CIO.

1. Good project manager or change manager
2. Excellent communicator with individuals and groups
3. Provides willing and effective leadership
4. Plenty of stamina and dogged determination

1. Win the trust of executive colleagues by keeping promises
2. Develop people and really empower your teams
3. Develop and maintain a good relationship with a committed board level sponsor
4. Take the lead on important IT initiatives
5. Give priority to maintaining the trust and support of your team.

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