To take advantage of the critical role IT plays in business today, the CIO's mission needs to be more broadly defined. And so does the CIO.
Call it "Internet pressure" - the media hype that has sensitised top executives to technology and to the ways it can be used to shape the future of the business. With technology so preeminent in the minds of CEOs these days (in a recent survey, they ranked use of new technology above product quality as the most critical issue for business success), CIOs are being asked to be much more than good managers. Today, the CIO's success depends upon developing the enterprise leadership smarts and skills to help mold Internet pressure into a rational technology strategy that serves the best interests of the company as a whole.
We gathered a panel of experts from CIO's Editorial Advisory Board to identify these challenges and to recommend strategies for leading the business, not just IS.
At the Table
Wayne D. Bennett, partner, Bingham Dana LLP. Boston John Cross, executive vice president, AppNet Inc., Bethesda, Md., and former head of IT, BP Amoco PLC Christopher Hoenig, CEO of Exolve Inc., Washington, D.C., and former director for information management and technology issues, U.S. General Accounting Office, Washington, D.C.
Susan S. Kozik, vice president of information systems and chief technology officer, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., Horsham, Pa.
Bud Mathaisel, executive director and CIO, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich.
Laraine Rodgers, president, The LR Group, Phoenix Robert M. Rubin, senior vice president and CIO, Elf Atochem North America Inc., Philadephia Harvey Shrednick, professor at Arizona State University in Tempe and director of the university's dual master's program in business administration and information management A Leadership Question CIO: What are the obstacles to a CIO displaying leadership in the organisation, not just in IS? Susan Kozik: I think we need to see ourselves as business people who happen to have a strong suit in technology, just like someone else has a strong suit in finance or product development. I think when you [a CIO] walk into a room and are perceived as a business person who understands the entire enterprise - the strategy, the issues, the concerns - and happen to bring some expertise to the table, that changes the way you're seen. When you treat technology as a component of an enterprise and not as a separate entity, it changes the way you're welcomed. We must get over that separateness in the way we walk and talk.
Laraine Rodgers: It's one thing for the executive team to tell the CIO, "You're on the team," but if you're in another building or in another city, that can be an obstacle.
Wayne Bennett: I work with maybe a dozen CIOs a year, and they are potentially the most isolated people on the planet. The CFOs and the rest of the executive team usually start with two preconceptions. One is that technology people don't understand where the business is going. And two, they see that they can buy paper clips as a commodity, so they want to know why they can't buy technology as a commodity too. So they start from the wrong perspective.
On the other hand, the CIO also is faced with his or her own people who have come to be isolated in their own way. They've been told, "Here's what your budget is." So sometimes their goal becomes, "Let's keep cost within that budget," as opposed to, "We are a service organisation. We don't exist except to further the goals of the business." That's why CIOs need to have two goals. One is to get to the point where you can stroll into the CFO's and the CEO's office and tell them what you need and that before they can consider the cost they need to consider what the cost of failing to do it will be for the organisation. Secondly, you've got to lead an organisation. You've got to have all the people working for you on the same page so that they understand that their [responsibility] is not just to make sure they get their jobs done within budget but that when they pick up the phone to help someone on the business side, the goal is to make sure that person's job gets done.
Bud Mathaisel: I've always challenged the title CIO as being probably inappropriate and perhaps even arrogant. We are not chiefs of information.
Information is everybody's province. We are heads of the information infrastructure that delivers the information that allows those who want it to go get it. Case in point: A new CEO comes in and wants the company to be more customer-intimate. It's our job to figure out how that can be possible and how marketing can fulfil its role, how product development can fulfil its role, how manufacturing can fulfil its role. It's not to know what customer-intimate means.
CIO: Is there ever a time when a CIO should step forward with an initiative that isn't already spelled out by a CEO, where you can say, "I think there's an opportunity here"? Maybe someone at Schwab did that and from that came e-Schwab.
Christopher Hoenig: If you understand the key business theme - like customer intimacy - and you have an overall technology vision of where you want to go, then you can take that first step.
When you take that first step and then show people what the next three steps are, you begin to give people a sense that you not only know where you're going and where the organisation is going, but that you can actually get them there.
The more you present that profile, the more you're perceived as a leader.
Harvey Shrednick: I've had a top executive look at me and say, "Harvey, don't tell me your capabilities. Leadership from you is to tell me the possibilities.
You guys are great, but I have no idea where I can go. Throw things up on the wall that potentially could work for me. Tell me things that I could possibly move forward and [would] gain some kind of a strategic advantage in my business. But don't tell me all the great and glorious infrastructure you have." Bennett: I think the alignment with some particular business goal of the CEO is a management problem and not a leadership issue. When a CEO comes in with his plan, this is where [the CIO's] leadership can play a role. You can go to the rest of the leaders of the company and find the e-Schwab kinds of ideas. All it takes is for somebody to identify those kinds of ideas and bring them back through the organisation. And the credit will go wherever the credit goes.
That's a political thing.
Mathaisel: We have to step up to the fact that what makes a difference between management and leadership is what many others may call politics. We've got to sort out the winners. It's not worthwhile investing tons of infrastructure money on people who are not winners, either the intellectual winners or the political winners. It just isn't. They're not going to make a difference to the company overall.
Membership in the Club
CIO: Our readers tell us they are viewed as operational people. They want to know how they can establish leadership in the company when they are not within the sacred circle of business leaders.
Kozik: What I've observed in terms of people's reactions to when the doors to the executive club are closed is they go back to IS and work hard and try to deliver. I think that's a mistake. You can't go back to IS and say, "I'll show them." It isn't always about that. It's about where the organisation wants to go and what it values. With the best of intentions, you'll churn, you'll bust your tail, and it may be the right thing to do technically, but if you haven't made your case through whatever process that's valued in that enterprise, in the culture of that enterprise you'll look worse.
Hoenig: If you are outside the club, it's almost impossible to get in. I feel sorry whenever I hear people say, "My boss pays no attention to me. I'm three levels down and I want to become a leader." You have this tremendous urge to say, "Here's a rope. Push it." It doesn't work very well.
Bennett: In my experience, half the time the CIO isn't part of the decision to make anything happen. The difference [between those who are and those who aren't] appears to me to be the CIO who has stepped up to say, "I am going to accept risk" and who has imbued his people with a sense of, "We are not here to manage. We are here to take risk." Meaning, I'm personally in peril if this does not work. That's what a CEO or a CFO does. Accepting risk means instant membership in that club, and you're always consulted, even on things that are not IT-related.
Playing the Game
CIO: It's clearly an uphill battle to establish oneself as an enterprise leader, but IT executives know they've got to try. What steps should they take? Shrednick: I believe the first and most important thing to do is to meet with the person you report to, whether it be the CEO, the CFO or the CIO, and understand what that person is looking for. Who are the influence peddlers, so to speak? Who are the people who are going to be your major allies? Who are the people who are looking to break your legs? Really understand what the expectations are, also from a timing point of view.
If you need to exert leadership, it's going to be hard to do that in the very beginning, but what type of time line is the boss giving you? Is he giving you three months? Six months? John Cross: I find a very helpful piece of leadership is to identify your biggest critics out there who are key on the map. And do not ignore them. In fact, take them absolutely seriously. If you turn your biggest critics into winners, they are the most powerful advocates you could possibly have.
Hoenig: I think the first thing actually goes back to Susan's point, which is [CIOs'] view of themselves. I think the first thing they [need to] do is make a personal commitment to leadership. Until they've made that conscious choice, it's not going to happen. They can take tactical approaches and go to courses, but people know leaders by the way they interact, by the way they look you in the eyes, by the way they follow up, by the commitments they make and keep, and the relationships they build. And that really starts with personal choice.
Mathaisel: It certainly is important that a person act like a leader and consider himself one, but I have to go back to the fact that you've got to have a compelling reason why people should listen to you.
Hoenig: Building on that, I guess a second item would be to identify a specific business problem opportunity that would be the place to begin leadership.
Shrednick: You can't at first. When I became CIO of Corning, I noticed that there were four degrees of differences between me and the rest of the management team. Number one, I was coming from New York City to upstate New York. Here was a culture of Midwest upstate New York, and they were looking at a totally different kind of person. Number two was my ethnic background, [which was different from] their ethnic background. Third, I was a single person coming into a place that was 99.9 percent married, which again deals with the social fabric. A fourth difference was that I was an IT person, and people in the management group were in many cases technophobic. Of course, it could have been worse. I could have been a woman.
Robert Rubin: Nobody is going to pay any attention to you as a leader if you can't do what you say.
First, achieve what you promise. Credibility is absolutely key.
Second, seek many small successes. It's not putting in the eight-figure ERP system that gets you someplace. You've got to do many, many small things so that you build that level of credibility.
Third, give away the credit. Nobody loves you as much as when you make them look good. The worst thing a CIO can do is take credit for anything. It's foolish. And, finally, concentrate on building a network of supporters. If you do the first three, chances are you will. When you build that network of supporters, then you will be in a situation where you will have credibility, and you will be able to provide leadership, so long as at that point you then use the capabilities, or as Harvey said, the potential of the technology to influence the business direction.
Senior Editor Christopher Koch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wallflowers at the Dance
Warren Bennis's Commentary
There's a paradox CIOs share with specialists in every organisation, whether the specialty is HR, marketing, advertising or facilities management. On the one hand, you're rewarded for your capacity to specialise, to develop a deep understanding of one discipline. You move to the top by becoming more and more skewed toward your specialty. On the other hand, to be an enterprise leader, you've got to be a deep generalist with a view across the whole organisation.
The question then arises, how do you combine the two? How can the CIO role be broadened to be perceived as integral to the success of the organisation? That's the subtext running through this entire roundtable discussion.
As with any specialist, you've got to first show that you've mastered the basics. That means making sure the plumbing is working, that you've got reliable systems that are flexible enough to respond to change. Then the second major issue is your own mind-set. You've got to see yourself as an enterprise leader, integral to the success of your business. As Christopher Hoenig says, you must make a personal commitment to leadership and see yourself that way in order for others to perceive you as such. The mind-set must be that the CIO role is an integral component of business success. It is not just relevant, and it certainly isn't peripheral. It is pivotal.
Unfortunately, CIOs seem to have a mind-set of marginalisation, which will interfere with their emergence as enterprise leaders. In this roundtable, CIOs sound like wallflowers waiting to be asked to dance by the other executives.
The CIOs dwell on the personality and background differences that supposedly set them apart. Or they see the fact that their office is in a separate building as an obstacle. This contributes to a marginalised self-image. Sure, you may be in a different building, but that's reality today. With globalisation and hoteling, corporate headquarters aren't that important anymore. If you see yourself as a leader, you'll work to overcome these real or imagined obstacles.
Finally, there will always be people who resist the notion that the CIO is an enterprise leader. Don't worry about them. Focus on the health of the company and find the people who can sense the discrepancy between where the business is and where it wants to be. They're the people you have to work with. Don't waste your time and energy trying to domesticate all the dissenters.
- Warren Bennis
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