Some CIOs See Expanding Roles

IT professionals are problem-solvers. So, in 2005, when Constellation Energy had challenges reining in the costs of its real estate operations, the top brass at the Baltimore utility and energy company tapped its top IT pro, CIO Beth Perlman, to add to her portfolio the unit charged with managing leases, maintaining facilities and deciding where to locate employees.

Perlman quickly discovered that managing real estate does not require IT skills. Still, managing property and managing technology can involve similar challenges, such as consolidation and standardization.

Within a year of joining Constellation Energy in 2002, Perlman reduced the number of processes used to procure IT equipment from 19 to one. Now, when leases expire, Perlman looks to consolidate offices. In much the same way that she standardized Constellation on a single desktop, she implemented standard floor designs for company offices. “We don’t spend time hiring designers or arguing over carpets each time we open an office,” she says.

According to CIO Insight‘s 2008 CIO Role Survey, 29 percent of participating CIOs manage another department or business unit outside of IT. However, Forrester analyst Alex Cullen says that kind of expanded role is becoming more common and can be a good fit for some CIOs.

“We see the broader role more and more in areas like real estate management,” he says. “CIOs make really good chief operating officers for other parts of the business, because there is no more process-oriented or project management-oriented job in the organization.” Adding responsibility may not be a stepping stone to the CEO job, he adds, but it could have positive career consequences.

Merv Tarde, CIO of Interstate Batteries, also has managed his company’s office facilities and real estate for several years. His boss, the CEO, asked him to take on that responsibility, which involves managing warehouses, distribution facilities, offices and retail space.

"I like to take on new things, either in IT or out,” he says. “It’s not the same as being a CIO. It’s being a person who is good at taking on additional responsibility, who has the aptitude to learn and be effective. If you’re a good businessperson, you gain the trust of the leadership team.”

It’s not just real estate, either. Former SIM president Stephen Pickett says opportunities abound for CIOs: “Something like running a call center without losing a customer–the CIO has done that kind of thing for years.” A marketing organization that is developing a plan to better understand the customer will encounter the kind of complexity a CIO has dealt with throughout his or her career. And a CIO’s knowledge of intellectual property could be broadly applicable to a company during an acquisition, and, in Pickett’s experience, CIOs do well on acquisition teams.

Perlman’s success managing IT and real estate for Constellation Energy resulted in CEO Mayo Shattuck III expanding her role even further, giving Perlman the added title of chief administrative officer when he reorganized his executive staff a year ago. She now oversees human resources, supply chain and business performance improvement, as well as IT and real estate.

“It’s all about problem solving,” Perlman says, “and asking the right questions to get to the heart of the matter.” – With Eric Chabrow

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