Wanted: Executive Peers

By Frank Petersmark  |  Posted 07-23-2013

Wanted: Executive Peers

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: needapeer@cio.losingmymind.nuts.

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. 

Wanted: Executive Peers

2.    Understanding leads to trust. The more you understand what another team member has to grapple with to do his or her job effectively, the more you begin to trust that what the person is doing serves the common corporate good. Conversely, the less you understand about what an executive team member is grappling with, the less confident—and trusting—you are that the member is pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team. This is a long-time quandary for CIOs, since what CIOs do, and what they are required to understand from a technology perspective to do their jobs, is often well beyond the realm of understanding of the rest of the executive team. 

While the CIO likely knows the difference between generally accepted accounting principles and statutory accounting principles and how this affects the company’s financials, it is a pretty safe bet the CFO does not understand the difference between hardware and software virtualization, or agile and waterfall development methodologies.

3.    Transparency leads to empathy. IT gets a bad rap in many companies as being the dark hole where investment dollars go to die. When CIOs ask their peers to pony up several million dollars for some needed business technology, they’ve created an expectation that a full and continuous accounting of how that money is being used will be available. Similarly, when CIOs bring the annual budget to the table, it helps if their executive peers actually understand what’s in that budget. Neither of these areas are traditional strengths of CIOs. Fair or not, it is often incumbent on CIOs to make the effort required to ensure that their executive peers fully understand how every dollar invested in IT is used and also comprehend the returns generated by those invested dollars over time. That’s the level of transparency necessary to create and maintain executive empathy, so the next time the CIO needs some leeway on investments or expenses, it doesn’t become a knock-down, drag-out confrontation. 

Individually, all of these issues are correctable. Taken together, though, they add up to an executive-level disadvantage for many CIOs—akin to not having a home-field advantage in sports. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the average tenure of CIOs is shorter than that of any other executive position. Or perhaps that’s why there seems to be so many conferences focused on facilitating CIO networking.  

As a CIO, the sense of security and confidence that comes with feeling that you’re part of a team is an important element of success over the long term. When this is missing, as it often is, the CIO’s job becomes more difficult.

So the question becomes, What can we do about this? Is there some way for CIOs to develop the type of executive peer relationship that, say, CFOs and COOs have with one another? 

In the short term, the answer may be no, or at least there’s not much that CIOs can do about this. The executive position of CIO is still a relatively young one in the context of corporate organizational charts, and it will take more time for CIOs and their potential peers to create a common organizational understanding, and appreciation, for what CIOs have to deal with.

All is not lost, however. Some CIOs have crossed the organizational chasm and landed in executive business positions, although you rarely hear of an executive business leader who crosses the chasm the other way and becomes a CIO. The implication is that some organizations have a broader and deeper understanding of what CIOs do, and recognize that business and technology acumen should be key components of any executive position.

The reality, though, is that there are still not enough organizations that work hard enough at the executive level to create the type of environment necessary for their CIO to develop true peer relationships with his or her executive counterparts. This takes time, patience, persistence and, above all, willingness on the part of both CIOs and their fellow executives to reach across the chasm and grab each other’s hand.

About the Author

Formerly CIO at Amerisure, Frank Petersmark is CIO Advocate at X by 2, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based technology company specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. He can be reached at Fpetersmark@xby2.com.