Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
3/2/2009
02:37 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary
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Should CIOs Play To Win, Or Play Not To Lose?

Is it better for CIOs to have high-level positions reporting to top executives, or to have mid-level roles where their ability to make great contributions is stifled by bureaucracy and politics but the job security is better? That's a question posed in a recent column on the public-sector Governing Web site. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I read the headline that delivered the punchline: "All CIOs Great And Small."

Is it better for CIOs to have high-level positions reporting to top executives, or to have mid-level roles where their ability to make great contributions is stifled by bureaucracy and politics but the job security is better? That's a question posed in a recent column on the public-sector Governing Web site. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I read the headline that delivered the punchline: "All CIOs Great And Small."Anyone who's worked at and competed in big organizations understands that success -- personal success and organizational success -- isn't free and isn't easy. For CIOs, the fight for credibility and authority is never-ending, and the very suggestion that you should plot your career around risk-avoidance and safety in obscurity is absurd. But that seems to be the issue under discussion in a recent "Governing Technology" column that, quite literally, asks if it's a good thing for state CIOs to report to top executives:

Now, many CIOs are equal in authority to agency heads and report directly to the governor. Is that a good thing?

Lately there's been some heavy-duty rethinking, particularly by CIOs who were ousted by new administrations. Sound like a case of "be careful what you wish for"? CIOs love the power and the glory of the Cabinet role. But being shown the door when a new administration arrives? Not so much... .

But there are those CIOs who felt broadsided when their jobs came to an abrupt end with this year's changes in administrations, as was explored in my Jan. 21 Technology e-newsletter. Their titles and the authority came with job insecurity. And after the CIO party was over, the post-administration hangover kicked in. It can be especially difficult for long-termers who worked their way up the ranks into extinction.

Am I missing something here? I thought the acronym "CIO" stands for "Chief Information Officer" as in C-suite executive heading up vision, strategy, and execution for how IT can expand business success, enhance customer value, and increase competitive capabilities. On the flip side, there is not a gosh-darn thing wrong with mid-level jobs: if the people in them are performing properly, they are often the places where great execution occurs and where hard-earned breakthroughs are learned and pushed upward.

But they are not CIOs. And someone with the title "CIO" who decides he or she can enhance career longevity by hunkering down in the trenches should feel free to do so -- but give up the big title first. A chief information officer is not the CIO because of a title but because of leadership and commitment and passion and a willingness to embrace and enjoy risk.

The column is an eye-opener in some ways and it might be worth reading, if only to then later pass it around your organization to underscore what you and your team are NOT all about. And as for public-sector CIOs who feel that life is not fair when their tenure could be foreshortened if a politician comes into office, well, there's always life in the private sector as an alternative.

CIOs must play to win, not to avoid losing.

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