The CIO: A Dead Man Walking
Back in May of 2013, Ernest von Simson wrote an article for Bloomberg titled “The New Role of the CIO” in which he describes the evolutionary process of the CIO, from IT’s mainframe days to the modern era of cloud computing and everything as a service. In it, he rightly characterizes how the CIO’s role has evolved from a manager of on-premises back office technology solutions, effectively isolated from the business, to one of cloud-centric data and software solutions tied closely to business services. As a result of this evolution, he emphasizes that the CIO can no longer afford to act in isolation from the firm. The CIO must be savvy in each of the cross-functional disciplines of his peers at the CXO level as technical knowledge or business experience in isolation is inadequate. I firmly agree; however, I am convinced that does not go nearly far enough. In my opinion, a technical executive that simply becomes versed in the language of his peers in the business will not survive in the era of Digital Transformation.
That may sound harsh, but hear me out on this. Disruption is real, and while many forward-thinking companies are embracing roles such as Chief Strategy Officer or Chief Innovation Officer, there is no better potential innovation center in an organization than IT. However, the modern CIO must lead. As the organization’s principal technologist, a modern CIO must not only educate subordinates, peers and superiors on the technology of today – keeping the lights on and automating current business processes – but also must understand how emerging trends in technology can digitally transform the company’s position in the market (and perhaps expand into new markets). It’s the change in perspective from automation and enhancements of existing business processes to the development of new groundbreaking processes.
In our experience, both the CIO and in many cases large swaths of IT departments are being replaced by CEOs in predictable cycles due to the diagnosis that incumbent IT leadership is unable to identify the root cause of their business challenges due to their inability to keep pace with the business. The modern CIO must embrace the mindset that the status quo is a death sentence for a company and in many cases its employees’ careers. Too often the CIO and the IT organization are viewed as order takers that drain corporate profit. In addition, they are both seen as a necessary evil to keeping the lights on and a hindrance to a fast moving sales organization. But who’s at fault here? I believe the responsibility is shared, and there is a straightforward solution.
In many cases, we observe that the CIO role doesn’t have a permanent seat at the table with the senior leadership team. Too often the CIO is called upon when there is an issue or outage, and IT must respond immediately, working in a frustrating effort to maintain technical debt accumulated by someone else’s decisions. By excluding the CIO from strategy, they and their organization are relegated to becoming wholly reactionary rather than the strategic assets they have the potential of being to the company. Likewise, the business often needs to realign the way they deliver to their customers. Rather than falling into the trap of placating a customer by simply delivering anything, the business must take shared ownership in driving value to both customers and shareholders.
If you are in a position as a CXO, we ask you, how can a company innovate and compete with such a critical asset on the sideline? A CIO cannot become integral to the fabric of the business if they don’t have a permanent seat with senior leadership, and if they are deemed unqualified perhaps it is time to make a change to someone that is capable. Do you require IT to deliver solutions at breakneck speed without embracing modern business strategies such as Agile, Hybrid-Agile or DevOps? If you are still requiring your CIO to come up with five and ten year ROIs before they have approval for their project funding, pause and take a hard look at what is preventing the adoption of these modern practices and eliminate those barriers. In many cases, successful executive leadership must use a combination of organizational, cultural, technical and other tactics to put themselves into a position of becoming ready to transform. After all, it is the role of senior leadership to ensure the company is prepared to compete, and being digitally ready is a critical aspect to the company’s survival. To those same CIOs we ask, how do you expect your CEO and peers to embrace you as part of the leadership team when they can’t move at the speed of modern business nor understand why their competition is out innovating, out disrupting, and out earning them year after year? Successful CIOs are doing what it takes to ensure that before taking on the responsibility of the position that their peers and superiors understand the pivotal role the CIO and technology can play. Without that base level of agreement, it’s predictable that the role will be one of maintaining the status quo while serving as the pincushion for non-IT-centric business units. There’s a reason why the average CIO tenure is around two years.
By now I am sure you realize the answer is clear, IT and the business must become one, and the CIO MUST become the principal advisor concerning how technology can enable rather than hinder company growth. However, while it is often up to the CIO to educate those on the senior leadership team about the importance of this interrelationship, the conversation often takes place in the wrong direction – it must come from the top. The CEO has the power to remedy this dysfunctional relationship between IT and the business and between the executive leadership team and the CIO, by ensuring that the CIO is tightly integrated into all core senior leadership discussions and empowered to both suggest and bring forth new technologies to bear. The CIO must be seen as a Chief Strategist and must have a voice. Of course, lights do have to remain on, and fires do occur, but when the CIO has a stake in the strategy, tactical efforts can focus on the highest value projects not only addressing the urgent needs of today but making progress towards a better future. Without this, a company is bound to head into a downward spiral, and the business will be lucky to survive. As the CIO (either incoming or incumbent) you owe it to yourself and your company to ensure that your role is understood; otherwise, it is simply a matter of time before you (and the company at large) are a dead man walking.