Darwin John: Team CIO

Our society tends to believe that all great leaders act as lone individuals. We want to crown one person chief and then hold him up as a hero or a scoundrel. I’ve often said that when things go extremely well, I receive too much credit, and when things go really badly, I personally get too much blame. That probably explains why, when companies began to elevate the leader of the IT function, the title of choice was “chief information officer,” and why pundits referred to CIOs as “technology czars.” I’m not questioning the title itself (although I’d rather be spared “czar”), but the attitude behind the title is no longer realistic. The task has become bigger than one individual can manage. CIOs are struggling today because the model we use for the position does not match the difficulty and complexity of the assignment. I’ve come to believe that most CIOs need to envision leadership differently. Instead of thinking about an individual we can praise or blame, we should start thinking more about leadership in terms of a team.

I used to say that an effective CIO needs to divide his time into thirds—a third minding the store, a third working with peers and managing the enterprise, and a third networking externally. Nowadays, however, there simply aren’t enough thirds to go around. Every function in a company has become completely dependent on technology, so CIOs must maintain more extensive and complex networks and systems than they did in the past. The responsibility for developing a company’s IT architecture and integrating new technologies now rests on the CIO’s shoulders, because those elements are no longer determined by default when a major vendor is selected. And while we want our CIOs to excel at managing technology, we also want them to be forward-focused and strategic. CIOs are expected to be deeply involved in business plans and projections, to serve as part of the company’s leadership team and to maintain strong relationships with other members of that team. The job description of today’s CIO is in transition, from technology implementer and visionary, to technology integrator possessing the business skills to prioritize between conflicting mandates and messages within his organization.

Some CIOs may be able to cover all this ground, but most find it impossible. The gravity of today’s necessities robs them of the capacity to focus on the future. Indeed, in many organizations, CIOs are overwhelmed––everything on their plate has to be done first. Today’s problems also require more kinds of expertise than any one person can possess. One can’t talk about outsourcing IT jobs offshore, for example, without considering the global economy, or possessing expertise in the technical, legal, economic and cultural pieces of this business puzzle. I don’t mean to offend any CIOs; my colleagues are as hard-working and capable as any group of executives. But no one person can have the necessary depth in all of these skills.

The simple reality is that for a CIO to be successful today, he must be able to do six things at once. That’s not realistic. Instead, CIOs should share responsibility with people who have complementary strengths. We need to move to a collaborative team of executives—an Office of the CIO, if you will—in order to give our companies and staffs the effective leadership they deserve.

I am not suggesting one particular way to set up this office. That will be determined by the needs of the company and the capabilities of the people involved. What’s important is that each member has a clearly defined and differentiated role, or confusion will result. Most CIOs today do four jobs: working with the company’s leadership and customers, planning (tracking technologies, creating architecture, setting IT budgets), overseeing projects and running IT operations. An Office of the CIO established according to these roles would resemble the cluster of executives surrounding a CEO: the CIO focuses on heading the IT executive team and working with the company’s senior leadership, key customers and suppliers; the CTO handles IT planning; the Head of IT Operations minds the store as IT’s Chief Operating Officer; and a fourth person oversees the projects and project managers. Another alternative is to divide the job into two co-CIO positions, as Intel, Capital One and other companies have done in the past: one focused externally on relationships and planning, the other internally on projects and operations.

By offloading responsibilities to other IT executives, the CIO’s time will no longer be caught up with day-by-day concerns, and he can devote himself to the essentials. He will be able to focus on playing his part in the leadership of the enterprise and finding opportunities for creating value and differentiating the company through IT. He will have more time to develop stronger and richer relationships. CIOs will also gain from the skills and perspectives of the other members of the Office of the CIO. Managing IT is such a large and complex job that it can’t all be seen from one viewpoint. CIOs need people whose strengths, professional and cultural backgrounds, personalities and ways of thinking differ from our own. And when a CIO shares responsibility and power with such people, he and his company gain far more than the CIO gives up. His top people become fully engaged collaborators who enthusiastically give their all to the organization, rather than lieutenants who carry out orders and offer advice but are less likely to think beyond their own roles. The personality and the limitations (though not the character) of the CIO grow less important, which makes the entire IT leadership function more stable and long-term in its outlook. Ultimately, the whole company benefits from sounder decisions, better oversight, clearer communication and more thoughtful planning.

Team leadership is neither impossible nor unprecedented. Some CIOs have intuitively taken a team approach, as I did, without giving it a formal title. They might entrust some of their work to an especially capable assistant or rely on another member of the IT management team to run IT operations. I have never considered myself as the deepest technical person in any of my CIO roles, so I always looked to bring in someone close to me who was more knowledgeable about technology than I was. And true team leadership is not entirely unprecedented in today’s business world. I’m not referring to the typically unsuccessful forced marriages that occur when two companies merge and their chairmen share executive responsibilities at the merged company. I’m thinking of consulting firms or law firms where a set of partners, each with a different but complementary specialty, share the top position in their firm’s hierarchy. One may specialize in tax law, another in copyright law, but they are on the same executive team when it comes to running the business of their firm. Such firms are a good model for the Office of the CIO; doesn’t IT, after all, require different areas of expertise to get things done?

In the May 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas G. Carr argued that IT is becoming a utility rather than a competitive differentiator; therefore (as his article was titled) IT doesn’t matter. One can argue that IT is being integrated into so much of the business that it may go away as a separate entity. But no matter how this young field evolves, someone will need to be the integration point—both at the front end in establishing an architecture and a plan, and at the operational back end. Those two integration roles can only be played by a CIO, and they will always demand more of a CIO than one person can give. Organizations that don’t recognize this, I fear, will have to pay a high price: It isn’t IT that will stop mattering, but the company itself.

Darwin A. John has held CIO-level positions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Scott Paper Co. He is currently an advisor to the director of the FBI and to Blackwell Consulting Services in Chicago.

Illustration by John Kascht

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