Riding the CIO Pendulum Shift

By Eric J. Sigurdson  |  Posted 03-18-2009

When I work with CIOs on self-evaluations, I like to boil things down to a simple question: What kind of CIO are you?

There are two extremes: the technically proficient IT leader who's well-versed in all the systems and tools at the company's disposal, and the business-savvy CIO who, when you look around the executive table, is indistinguishable from other executives. Which one are you?

The answer to that question rests heavily on a few factors, one of which is your communication skills. But that, in and of itself, is a troublesome criterion. That's because, over the past several decades, businesses haven't exactly known what they want from an IT chief.

The expectations placed on the CIO have swung like a pendulum. When the top IT position first emerged in the 1980s, businesses promoted supertechnical people out of the data center and gave them a chance to interact with the executive team. Years into that experiment, business executives wanted IT leaders with more business savvy, so they turned to operatives from other areas (like finance or operations) to run their IT shops.

Now the pendulum sits somewhere in the middle. In today's world, CIOs have to be both: They have to be technical, ready to drill down at a moment's notice, but they also have to remain strategic and keep that seat at the table.

Obviously, that's no small task. But there are some things you can do to meet the current expectations of your bosses and grow in your jobs.

First, you must have "learning agility." An insurance company recently promoted a divisional CIO who had been with the company less than two years into the corporate CIO role. In looking to find his successor, the line executives were asked, "What did you like so much about your divisional CIO?" They explained that he asked good questions, listened actively, convinced them that he understood the issues and solved the smaller problems quickly.

This CIO constantly went to meetings, expressed curiosity about his business partners' needs and then looked for ways to get quick wins. That type of agility is essential in today's environment.

CIOs should also look to create a high-performance culture in which they put in the right metrics to motivate people to meet the tasks at hand. A three-time Fortune 500 CIO always has the metrics of his IT operations in mind: budget, percentage of revenue benchmarks for the industry, major transformation milestones, and his team's performance against those milestones in both spending and time. The CIO needs to be skilled in recounting details quickly and confidently.

Finally, CIOs need to focus on the three "-ations": communication, negotiation and prioritization. The CIO has to be an outstanding communicator within the executive suite, across the business with internal customers, with employees and with business partners. He or she cannot be successful without having the communication and persuasion skills to get others on board.

In today's environment, every CIO has to negotiate internally as part of the governance process to help the business prioritize its IT needs. He or she also has to negotiate with external partners that provide outsourcing, out-tasking or offshoring services.

Finally, the governance process is all about prioritizing to make sure the IT organization is working on the highest-priority projects. While doing so, CIOs can improve their reputations and visibility with the business through various communications initiatives.

For example, a number of IT leaders at technology companies create their own annual reports. They put down on paper all the priorities they're focusing on, as well as what they accomplished in the previous year.

This proactive, "eat your own cooking" approach helps them publicize their efforts and interact directly with customers and other stakeholders. It's not a quick fix for all enterprises, but it's something that could work well for B2B companies.

Eric J. Sigurdson is CIO practice leader with executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

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