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6 Habits of Highly Effective CIOs

6 Habits of Highly Effective CIOs

For top CIOs, alignment is not a goal. It's a way of life. A list of tactics that you should adopt as your own.

Jim Milde, senior vice president and CIO for Sony Electronics, sounds euphemistic when he summarises how the fortunes of IS have changed in recent years. "I think historically, when a company is growing like crazy, the role of IS is just try to keep up. We're going through a period now where there's much more focus on cost structure and process. We're at a point where we believe there's a huge opportunity to drive continued operating efficiencies through our business." TRANSLATION: Growth and relentless cost-cutting and short-term payback. That means the temperature has been ratcheted up on CIOs. For those who can't take the heat, the powers that be will make sure the kitchen exits are well-marked.

Time to throw in the towel and retreat into the IS cocoon? No way. Instead, the budget pressures you face make now the time to renew your commitment to solidifying relationships with your fellow business executives. Now is the time to make sure your IS governance is effective. Now is the time to trumpet IT initiatives to the rest of the company. And last, but far from least, now is the time to put all your available energies into aligning your staff and projects and budgets and strategy with the lines of business.

Sure, alignment is one of those topics that never seems to go away. But "old hat" doesn't mean "stuff that hat in the closet and forget about it". In The Conference Board's 2002 survey of global CEOs, 50 per cent of the respondents identified business and IT alignment as a high priority. (By contrast, only 20 per cent said implementing new technologies was top of list.)

Alignment is not new, but it's certainly not a given either. "It's still more common than not that IT and the business are not aligned, and that CIOs don't have quality relationships with people that matter in the business," says Michael Earl, professor of information management at the London Business School. CIOs must work with line-of-business managers to get benefits out of existing IT investments, to set performance targets, to answer the pressure to save money and wring efficiencies out of operations, he adds.

Below are six habits that highly effective CIOs employ to cope with the pressure-cooker arena in which they play. Some may be familiar; others may be additions to your portfolio. All of them will help you position yourself and the IS function to succeed now and in the uncertain months ahead.

Habit Number 1

Commit to the care and feeding of top management.

That doesn't necessarily mean trying to get in on the CEO's biannual white-water rafting excursion. But you've a better chance of earning a paddle if you're on the top leadership team in the company. In a recent Gartner survey of CIOs, maintaining superb relationships with the senior-level team ranked first on the management agenda. "Actively engaging the business unit head and leadership team ensures you're involved in day-to-day decisions. I think CIOs realise if you're not sitting there at the executive table, you won't be able to make a difference," says Ellen Kitzis, Gartner group vice president of executive programs for the Americas. She argues, in fact, that if CIOs aren't at the table, "then alignment doesn't make a difference".

Some CIOs with a seat at the table consider themselves business leaders first, technology leaders second. That paves the way for tight partnering; a business-first CIO discourages "the IT guy" label. Eugene Stein, chief knowledge officer and global head of technology at New York City-based White & Case, a global law firm, says: "I'm part of the business side. I participate in the day-to-day business operations for everything, not just technology." In fact, White & Case created the position for Stein because technology is a key part of the practice, he says.

It doesn't hurt that Stein, who began his career in IT as an entry-level programmer, is also a lawyer. Stein put his two-headed background to good use by recently improving one of the firm's knowledge management and CRM systems. After lawyers complained about the way they had to enter their timesheets, he and his staff redesigned the entry field and added an extra field where lawyers could type in what was worth knowing about the time they spent working on a project. They also can enter who the client contact was and what they discussed. Because of the information they're capturing, "We're now able to find key contacts, generate new business and provide better service to clients," Stein says.

Harvey Schafle, vice president of IT at DDS Distribution Systems, a third-party logistics and fulfilment house, also tips toward the business side. "I feel I'm more of a client service and production advocate than an IT advocate," he says. That means Schafle makes every effort to view IT from the users' perspective and to make sure his department understands their needs. "There's a tendency for IT people to do the most interesting thing, not necessarily the best thing," he explains.

Stein reports to the head of his firm, and Schafle reports to his CEO and sits on DDS's four-person corporate leadership team. Regardless of where you sit, building credibility and trust with line of business heads is critical. After Milde joined Sony Electronics last year, he spent the first few months soliciting feedback from the business units and external customers. What was IS doing and not doing well? Making that effort helped him build trust with his peers; it also gave business leaders a greater understanding of the IS agenda. And Milde? He also serves on Sony Electronics' senior management committee.

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