By Frank Petersmark
Desperately Seeking: Executive peer who understands what I do, why I do it and how I do it. Must be a good listener with the ability to provide critical yet constructive feedback and perspectives. If this sounds like you, and you work at my company, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The life of a CIO can be a lonely one. In many companies the job is less understood than any other executive position, the results are scrutinized more than for any other executive position, and to top it all off, nothing is ever really “completed” in the same sense as things are for other executive positions.
When a CIO and his or her team implement a new system of even the mildest complexity, it’s not the end of the process. It’s actually the beginning, given the production problems, customizations and upgrades that will inevitably arise. On the other hand, when the CFO and his or her team implement a new profitability, reserve or expense report, it’s done when the report is distributed.
There are many reasons for misunderstanding the CIO’s job, including the relative immaturity of the CIO position in the executive ranks and the general lack of understanding of what the CIO does in many companies. But I wonder if there is some other, deeper-seated reason why the CIO is the outlier on most executive staffs. By the way, this is not to imply that CIOs are not effective leaders and executives in their companies, or that they lack the executive vision and gravitas to get strategic things done; many CIOs clearly can do all of that and more.
It does imply, however, that most CIOs lack the one thing in their company that everybody else on the executive staff has: an executive peer. Now, before you say that CIOs have been at the adult table for many years now and many are fully integrated into the executive team and strategy, I’ll tell you that’s not what I’m suggesting.
I’m driving toward a more fundamental notion of a peer, as Webster’s defines it: “One that is of equal standing with another: equal; especially: one belonging to the same societal group especially based on age, grade, or status.”
The first part of the definition—one that is of equal standing with another—is true for many CIOs, at least as they appear on the corporate organizational chart. However, the second part of the definition is a bit more problematic. Executive staffs are nothing if not their own special types of societal groups and, in that society, age, grade and status matter. All of those elements result from a sense of shared experiences and shared understanding of what each member does. That’s where trust, credibility and even empathy come from in the executive ranks. And that gets to the heart of the problem: In this modern corporate scenario, there is no executive peer for the CIO.
But what’s the big deal? So what if CIOs don’t have executive peers in their organizations? How could that possibly affect their ability to succeed in their role as the business technology leader of their organization? Let us count the ways:
1. Being an executive is a team sport. To be an effective part of an executive team, or any team, it’s important that all the team members understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses and overall capabilities. That way, team members can be put in positions that leverage their strengths, and where possible, avoid scenarios that expose their weaknesses. This kind of team dynamic can occur only if team members have the context and shared experiences that enable them to understand the decision-making perspectives of their peers. In the case of the CIO, that shared perspective doesn’t exist.