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The Power Seat

The Power Seat

Most CIOs believe that demonstrating leadership, both in their team and across the business, does prop their power base

You're already at the pointy end of the IT pyramid when you make CIO. But do you have real power - and if you do, how do you use it, share it, grow it and keep it?

Some CIOs find talking about power as enticing as the prospect of root canal work. They have it, yes. But crow about it? That's another story. For some the topic prompts hand wringing; others squirm in leather chairs, glancing out the door to see who might be listening in. One CIO actually invokes the spectre of Adolf Hitler, pointing out that power was his problem.

Australia's CIOs it seems are a modest lot.

In fact about the only thing they are all prepared to admit is that the ultimate manifestation of their power is that when something goes wrong the buck stops at their respective desks. It is not as though all of them even believe they do have the greatest power over their IT systems. Some say it is the CEO or the CFO, or the business. Some are content to execute against strategy rather than formulate it.

When Telstra unveiled its technology strategy in November 2005 it was chief operating officer Greg Winn, not then CIO Vish Padmanabhan, doing the talking. At the time Padmanabhan was top dog of the telco's $1 billion plus IT operation, but he was not the one outlining strategy. He was "busy just trying to keep the spaghetti together", according to Winn. (Padmanabhan, whose first role at Telstra was as deputy CIO under then CIO Jeff Smith, stepped into the CIO shoes in 2005 when Smith left. In February Padmanabhan stepped back into his deputy CIO shoes with the announcement that Qantas CIO Fiona Balfour would be moving into the CIO spot come April.)

Even when CIOs do have real power, they are reluctant to flaunt it. Derek Goh, CIO of Challenger Financial Services, believes he has an absolute power over the IT systems, and in fact the APRA regulations that govern financial institution operations demand that the CIO sign off on IT capability. "If I don't sign off then Challenger can't operate," Goh says. Now that is power.

Yet Goh says he is not a fan of power. "I have a nice fancy office, but that's not for me. That's for my role. The office is for whoever plays the CIO role." Indeed Goh believes the ultimate confirmation that he has real power would be never having to use it - by creating systems, processes and protocols that guide and steer information systems to the extent that exercising his power becomes a measure of last resort.

Power also seems to be something that people worry about less as they grow older. Both John Wadeson, CIO of Centrelink, and David Issa, CIO of IAG, say that as they log years in the role and mature personally they are less concerned about power and status.

"It was important when I was 30 and I was pretty aggressive," Issa says. "Now I'm 46. As I got older and more experienced I worked out that it's your people who make it happen, not you." He says he seldom wields his power, "but I do get frustrated and I do have my moments".

So if power is not something to be paraded or prized, what is it? How does it manifest for CIOs?

Hemant Kogekar, group executive IT for Suncorp, observes that while a CIO's power is both overt and nuanced, perhaps more importantly, it's not what you've got, but how you use it. "Power is your accountability to get things done: to control resources, to control dollars and to control decision making. The other dimension is your access to information that is not available to everyone and the ability to shape the enterprise," Kogekar says.

"There is a legitimate power base of the [CIO] role. Then, depending on how you engage or don't engage, you add or subtract from that base. Power is gained by how you work with that. For example one person may have greater power if the MD listens to him. They seem to be better connected."

Connections are important in shoring up power bases. Metcalfe's Law, which states that a network's power or value is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network, would appear to hold as well for people power as for communications power. Having access to a robust network of peers is important to CIOs, according to Mike Kennedy, who was until recently CIO at the NSW Office of State Revenue (OSR). "Your network is an explicit manifestation of your power," Kennedy says. "You can call and say: 'Can we have coffee?', and they will take your call. That is good for career advancement if it's true that only a fifth of all jobs are advertised."

Issa agrees that it is important to have a network, to have a public profile and to take a position on certain issues in order to reinforce the position.

While peer networking might shore up power, Kogekar says that other people accrue power because they complain more. "People say: 'Let's run it by him'."

He warns, however, that whatever the modus operandi of the CIO, if you do not use power it tends to go away. "You can become just a rubber stamp. But you have to use the raw power very carefully. The smarter executives use it carefully by persuasion, influence and governance.

"You use the power less and the influence more. For example, you set up frameworks and say that all projects have to have a payback period of two years. If someone comes to you with a project where the payback period is three years - you don't have to say no. The framework says no," Kogekar explains.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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