A different CIO

A different CIO

CIOs from diverse industry backgrounds are the key to supporting growth, accessing emerging markets and using new technologies

The cry of a ‘skills shortage’ in Australia is indicative of a fundamentally flawed attitude widely held by executives. Australia is teeming with exceptional business and technology leaders who are being overlooked for leadership positions for all the wrong reasons. If there is a ‘skills shortage’ in Australia, then it could be because highly qualified candidates are not being considered for leadership positions as they come from outside the industry.

CIOs from diverse industry backgrounds are the key to supporting growth, accessing emerging markets and using new technologies. But lazy hiring practices, shabby recruitment services and stereotyping all prompt organisations to look for leaders internally, while the real talent, the talent that can support growth with strategy and innovation, is being knocked back. In addition, there has been a basic failure at the executive level to acknowledge the fundamental shift in the role of the CIO within businesses across Australia.

Organisations need to challenge their traditional mentalities to IT and their out-dated attitudes to hiring technology leaders. IT needs to lose its unwarranted, dated reputation as a ‘necessary evil’ that is tolerated but rarely understood at the executive level. This flawed attitude to IT leadership is particularly evident when the CIO role is made to report to the CFO, which sends the wrong message: IT is purely a cost centre and not an enabler of growth or a sustainability partner. This mindset needs to change. IT is a necessary cost of doing business and IT investment is the cost of doing business better. IT is fundamental to competitiveness and vital in supporting growth in times of expansion.

IT’s business function is undergoing major development. Once a solely operational domain, technology is now controlling a business’ growth, dictating changes, managing risk at the organisational level and influencing strategy. With the pace at which technology is progressing, organisations should be merging information technology, engineering and innovation, as IT is now the powerhouse of a company’s future and long-term growth.

An organisation’s choice of technology leader needs to reflect this shift in thinking. Business-as-usual IT managers are often ill equipped to cope with the new challenges such a role presents. So, it is time that organisations understood the real value of a CIO, the role they can and should be playing within the business, and the need to look for a CIO with the right skills. Therefore, they should not limit their search for that kind of technology leader by only looking within their own organisations.

The CIO has become one of the most misunderstood roles on the planet, even at the most senior executive level. The role has been contaminated with misconceptions, and there needs to be a major change in how they are viewed and valued within the organisation. The skills required of this role are acquired through extensive leadership experience and a broad business knowledge base; technical proficiency alone is no longer enough. CIOs need to combine the business knowledge of a CFO and the leadership skills of a CEO.

Because of the widespread misunderstanding of the CIO role, when hiring a technology leader organisations make the mistake of promoting internally, often choosing someone with an incestuous, industry-specific background. But this will not bring the necessary innovation to the organisation; the person they really need is a candidate with a diversity of industry experience. Sadly, this is seen as a weakness, not a strength.

Some organisations allow IT managers to assume the CIO role without properly understanding the fundamental difference between the two positions and the unique skill set a CIO requires for successful leadership. This is frequently occurring in Western Australia where good CIOs are urgently needed, especially as the state is undergoing massive expansion.

Some forward-thinking organisations are seeking candidates with diverse industry backgrounds to fill those roles. But many still fail to differentiate between hiring under-qualified IT managers from within their organisation and bringing in a qualified CIO with the breadth of experience to innovate and support growth. Companies in the expanding mining, oil and gas, and construction sectors that choose not to break out of their ‘old school’ thinking and fail to acknowledge the importance of hiring the right CIO will not capitalise on the boom.

A good CIO is one with a diversity of experience and a broad knowledge of markets. They should drive and support growth and lead change, while supporting business-as-usual activity. The role of the CIO is about intimately understanding a business’ strategic plan and developing an organisation that is in keeping with that strategy. The CIO role is not about micromanaging the day-today operational elements of IT. Forward thinking organisations should be aiming for 100 per cent automation, outsourcing operational issues, and ‘putting it in the Cloud’. These operational concerns should be someone else’s problem. A CFO doesn’t spend their days balancing the books, and a CIO shouldn’t be wasting their time just keeping the lights on.

A CIO should be able to provide a healthy balance of strategic and operational leadership, with a focus on business processes and change.

A good CIO needs to be a business expert, not just a technology expert. While supporting the ‘lights on’, the business-as-usual operational elements, they should be building stakeholder relationships with business leaders within and across businesses, adding value to the vertical lines of business, as well as the broader horizontal business. CEOs need to ask themselves, ‘Do I want a transformation agent or do I want a business-as-usual manager?’ If they are looking for the latter then they do not need a CIO, they want a glorified IT manager. Many organisations don’t understand this distinction and give the title of CIO to an unqualified IT manager, only to find 12 months later that they are still in a mess, still having the same problems and business is not progressing.

The human resources department can further fuel this problem, filling these new positions with the ‘easy’ option of promoting existing IT managers within the company to the CIO level without ensuring they have the adequate skills or experience in a previous CIO role. This could be because HR often does not understand the position, and internal knowledge and technical ability are believed to be all that’s required for the role. The HR department can be keen to be seen looking after its own people and promoting internal succession, when in fact this is the opposite of what’s best for the business.

In order for a CIO to possess the broad knowledge of markets, the business savvy and acumen, and the strategic advantage required for the position, HR should be deliberately seeking candidates from diverse industry backgrounds to bring diversity into the workplace. They should be looking for CIOs from diverse backgrounds that can bring innovation and new, challenging thoughts and ideas, and, more importantly, can better connect and use technology as a strategic weapon to enhance growth. Finding the right CIO may not be the easiest option, but it could mean the difference between success and failure for a growing company.

Recruitment services, like HR, can also be part of the problem. Recruiters who have not recruited for this role before may not understand the position or the business’ needs, and often could fail to do the necessary research to make the best appointment for the company. What’s worse is if they base their hiring decisions on personal relationships at the expense of the company’s long-term success. This is not to say that there aren’t some very talented recruiters who go above and beyond to do their research and provide good results, but it’s the recruiters who don’t have the proper knowledge and understanding that leads good candidates being overlooked.

Stereotyping and prejudices are other factors that could lead to good candidates being overlooked, even though these should not determine hiring decisions. Qualified candidates that do not fit a certain age group or gender, or do not fit a stereotypical image of a senior executive — grey haired, male and over 50, for example — may be passed over, and this is a terrible waste of talent.

The growing complexity of running a technology-based organisation in the current economic climate means the CIO’s role is only going to become more challenging and more vital. Candidates from diverse industry backgrounds have the breadth of experience and the ability to adapt to change in uncertain times that others could lack. Organisations that overlook qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds are only perpetuating their own ‘skills shortages’ of workers.

If CEOs and CFOs can manage to break traditional mentalities and think of IT leadership in a new and positive light, then they will find Australia does have the technology leaders they really need — leaders with great innovation and experience who can hit the ground running; strategists whose focus is set squarely on long-term future growth. We have these leaders in Australia, leaders who are eager and ready to be part of growth and expansion, and who can deliver strategy-led growth and performance-led operations.

Bruce Carlos is an independent CIO and principal of Starmaster group. He is a founding member of the CIO Executive Council of Australia, former CIO of Raytheon Australia and CIO within the Victorian government. Contact him:

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