Put Up or Shut Up

The past 12 months haven’t been easy for CIOs. But have the last 12 years?

We’ve talked plenty about leading in tough times. We knew that would be a given after the bottom dropped out late in 2008.

Now it’s time to start talking more about post-recession strategy. And while we’re at it, we should reflect on the lingering issues that CIOs and IT have faced since their earliest days.

Let’s finally put to rest the argument that CIOs aren’t really strategic leaders. For years, business executives have complained that their IT leaders don’t have sufficient business chops. CIOs dispute this every chance they get.

There’s no definitive way to say who’s right and who’s wrong. But the bottom line is, if you haven’t done some serious self-evaluation of your strategic prowess and business skills, you haven’t been doing your job.

Bill Krivoshik, who joined Marsh & McLennan Companies in April as its first enterprise CIO, sees it this way: “For me, IT strategy is a little bit about the technology and a lot about the process and governance and management. Yeah, you’re going to talk about data center strategy, platform strategy and application strategy, but it’s really about running IT like a business.” Emulating his mindset is a great start to meeting the expectations of the business.

Another big part is simple: You have to step up. You won’t get much done if you don’t. And you’ll accomplish absolutely nothing–except maybe landing yourself in the unemployment line–if you take the defeatist tack.

“Never be a victim. Never decide in advance, ‘This is what I’m going to be relegated to,'” says FedEx CIO Rob Carter. “If you’re going to be a top-flight business executive in any discipline, you have to assume that what you bring to the table is worthwhile and worth being part of a big-league team.”

So what do you want to be?

Business leaders are looking for more from their CIOs, and they’re already showing less tolerance for poor or even average performance. Those IT leaders who can’t deliver won’t have the chance to course-correct. Those who do will find their seats at the executive table to be a hell of a lot more comfortable.

In their defense, it’s easy to see why many CIOs have been knocked off their course of becoming more strategic and business-savvy. The recession certainly didn’t help. And even in the better times that preceded it, IT leaders faced curveballs every step of the way.

But great leaders know how to anticipate problems, as former Medtronic Chairman and CEO Bill George explains in his new book. Sure, predicting the depth of the recession was nearly impossible, but anticipating many of the regular roadblocks is much easier.

And during this time, we’ve all softened a bit when it comes to emphasizing the need for IT leaders and their deputies to become better business operatives.

We in the media are very much to blame. Over the last eight months, we’ve focused heavily on what CIOs need to do in the recession. That meant taking a look at many of the same-old CIO challenges, but this time through the lens of the economic climate.

But that climate is shifting. To reflect that, you’ll start seeing a different tone in the analysis we provide in these pages.

It’s time to finally put all the criticisms to rest. That won’t be done by ignoring them–it’ll happen when you give business executives every reason to change their minds.

It all comes down to what you want to be. And as FedEx’s Carter rightfully says, you do have a hand in your own destiny.

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