The CIO Chasm

These basic steps can help CIOs make the leap from technologist to business leader.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 7, 2007

5 Min Read

The future of today's CIOs lies in their hands. Major search firms say that an overwhelming percentage of CIOs still don't get it. They're lined up at the edge of the chasm, but they're not ready to make the leap from technologist to business leader. How interesting that CIOs are asked to be the change agents at many companies, yet they can't change themselves.

The same old issues still aren't being addressed: business alignment, organizational respect, and investment justification. We've been talking about business alignment for years, but we've made little progress. The answer is quite simple, yet difficult to achieve: Changing from an introvert who spends most of the time in the office to an extrovert who's constantly meeting with peers, managers, and staff members is the key to success.

Here are some basic steps to ensure that when you take the leap, you'll be thought of as a key contributor, rather than a big spender.

• Become an expert on your company. Many CIOs, as well as their teams, probably can't answer basic questions about their companies. Who are the largest and most profitable customers? Who's the biggest competitor? What are the company's competitive advantages? What are its most profitable products and services? What are the largest hurdles to success? If you can't answer these basic questions, then you're in trouble. Your team should be able to answer them as well. I had a rule when I was a CIO called the PMCC rule, which stood for Products, Markets, Customers, Competitors. I'd challenge my team to identify which of those they were addressing in their activities. If they couldn't answer, then we'd kill the activity.

• Know the difference between ego and will to succeed. Ego will get you fired. Don't let your position and perks go to your head. Being a little humble will get you more mileage.

• Understand the culture and internal language of your company. In order to be effective, you must take the time to learn both. If you talk management's language, you'll have their attention.

• Identify the real power brokers at your company. In some cases, it might be the administrative assistants or plant managers. These are the people you need to align with to be successful.

• Build strong relationships. We talk about being leaders, yet we still don't take the time to build relationships with our peers and managers. The only way you can expect to gain support for your initiatives is by having strong relationships. This means never eating lunch alone, getting out of the office, and attending internal and external events to help build a larger network.

• Understand the needs of today's leaders. The new order is in charge. Today's business leaders grew up with technology, so they have a different set of expectations. They're no longer impressed with technology; they just want their problems solved. If you can't react, they'll do it themselves. Results are all that matters. Sometimes you need to compromise in the short term to help with a critical need. Don't be a stiff tree in a strong breeze.

• Perception is reality. Just working hard won't cut it anymore. It's not about how hard you work, but rather it's how well you're liked. At the end of the day, we're all individuals with individual needs. If we like people, then we're more likely to reach out to them, especially if we think they're easy to work with and get results.

• Bring value to meetings. The only way you'll get people to meet with you is if they think that it will help them. Plan your meetings in advance. Gain an understanding of the issues and always bring a nugget of information with you.

• Stay ahead of the curve. Don't sit back and wait for the issues to come to you. Have the answers before you get the questions. How many CIOs would've been better off if they'd spent the time to ask all the questions about outsourcing before they got the call from the CEO? Keep abreast of industry trends. Do your research and be proactive in presenting ideas to management.

• Understand where you are in the CIO life cycle. You were brought into the company to solve a specific problem. Once you've accomplished that, what do you do next? If you're not gaining an understanding of the next set of issues that's coming, you're no longer the solution provider, but part of the problem. Understand where the priorities are and prepare to address them. Understand your knowledge gaps and fill them with up-to-date research and advice.

• Become an internal consultant and technology innovator. It's not all about cost cutting anymore. Companies today are looking for innovation. They realize the advantages that technology offers; what they're looking for is a leader who can leverage technology for competitive advantage. This means taking some risks. If you've taken the time to build strong relationships, the risks will be much smaller and your support base much larger.

• Don't wait for the company strategy. Too many CIOs sit like a deer in the headlights waiting for a strategic plan from the company. Guess what? It won't happen. While you're waiting, the company is moving forward and you're further distancing yourself from the business.

• Keep your resumé up to date. Having an up-to-date resumé doesn't mean that you're looking for a job. A resumé is a personal career road map. It's the place where you should be comparing your background experience to your personal goals. Use it to understand where the gaps are, and go fill them.

• Know how to deliver effective presentations. Each level of management requires a different level of presentations. The higher you go, the more concise you must be. Your presentations should frame the issues and identify solutions in a straightforward manner. Too few slides are better than too many. They should provide a basis for conversation. It's the discussion you're looking for.

Remember, your success is in your hands. Following these tips can only help. Each of us has an individual style; mold that style to fit the need. Don't be afraid. Take the leap!

Alan Guibord is a former CIO of several large companies; he's chairman and founder of The Advisory Council, an IT research and consulting firm.

Photo by Getty Images

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