Finding common ground with your CEO

Finding common ground with your CEO

How CIOs can strengthen their relationship with the biggest c-level executive of them all, the CEO

With technology now at the core of most business transactions, the relationship between CIO and CEO is assuming an increasing significance.

Five years ago, conversations in the CIO community revolved around whether the IT leadership role would ever get a seat at the strategy table; but for most top organisations, that debate is old hat.

Today’s top CIO is a business transformer who is constantly tuning the technology to align with business priorities, which often include goals they have helped to set. And the CIO is no longer the white-coated scientist wielding arcane technical mysteries. In today’s organisation, good CEO-CIO relationships are built on a solid foundation of openness and trust.

Last year’s IBM Global CEO study interviewed more than 1700 CEOs from 64 different countries and found 70 per cent regard technology as driving the most change in their organisation over the next three years. In fact, technology is considered to be a bigger change agent than external economic and market conditions.

The study also found a key influence on most CEOs is the desire to change to a working culture which celebrates openness, transparency and employee empowerment. As a result, leadership teaming with their other c-level executives is one of the most critical factors steering CEO practices today.

“CEOs have found themselves in a somewhat vulnerable situation. They are surrounded by technologies and ways of relating and working that new hires – and even their children – may understand better than they do,” the report notes, adding CEOs need to learn from their own networks. So who better to turn to than the CIO?

Global transformations

For CEO Robert Tickner, who heads the Australian Red Cross, it was critical to have the right person in the CIO seat as the organisation moved into its next phase of supporting and influencing 180 national societies across the globe.

“For me, our IT reform and innovation is the missing piece of the puzzle in our overall organisational transition,” he says.

Earlier this year, he recruited Peter Day, a former Sentric director servicing the Red Cross, who also previously worked as a senior Telstra executive.

“We both have a deep commitment to innovation,” Tickner says. “I have recruited some outstanding people for the organisation’s national leadership team, and Peter was one of these.”

In the last six years, the Australian Red Cross, with Tickner at its helm, has moved from eight separate state and territory organisations each with its own board and CEO, to a cohesive national organisation. The transformation involved moving nine separate financial, marketing, HR and other administrative systems into one, and it all went through successfully, he says.

Day credits his CEO with some wise decisions. “Robert is a collaborative CEO and is the first to say when he feels he doesn’t have a good handle on where the technology fits within the business,” he says. The Red Cross faces several unique challenges, chief among them reluctance across the board to take funds away from frontline roles, Day says.

“It’s very hard to say to people, ‘I need to take some money out of your program to spend on computers’,” he says. “That’s where Robert plays a critical mediator role.” Day runs a very lean team and says his focus is also on cost cutting.

“We’re supporting 3000 permanent staff and about 34,000 volunteers with only 55 IT people,” he says.

He’s switched the enterprise to Citrix cloud-based systems with thin-client desktops, reducing the turnover of computers. “Thin clients last a lot longer,” he explains.

Day agrees openness and employee empowerment have been key to relationship success. “There’s a lot of trust involved,” he says. “The CEO doesn’t want to know the full technical background, but you can give them a lot of information around IT spending and IT decisions so that they are well informed.”

Tickner and Day have also worked closely together in finding external support for the organisation’s technology goals.

“We don’t mind going cap-in-hand to ask industry to provide pro-bono around people and resources,” Day says.

“We keep scanning the horizon for potential partners we can work with,” Tickner adds, citing Microsoft as a good example.

“The partnerships have been really important – Microsoft gave us the equivalent of $10 million in software to support the organisation. Looking for potential partners is a journey that never ends because we have bigger goals than just Australia,” he says.

For Tickner and Day, the CEO-CIO partnership goes beyond the management of the local organisation – they want to take their skills to the world.

The main challenges I face are that those in business operations want to determine the end of product; there's a tendency for people in the business to go shopping for solutions

In November, the Australian Red Cross will host the biannual General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with representatives from 188 national societies coming to Sydney. Tickner says a major focus for the Australian Red Cross is supporting the organisational development of other national societies.

“Far more effective than a simple aid package is support to the core growth and development of the capacity of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in their own countries,” Tickner says.

“In Fiji, those best able to solve the problems of the country are Fijians. If they have a good financial system, good fundraising and a resilient IT system in place, they can operate far more effectively.

“Peter and I are taking this commitment to boost the society to the world, and IT is a fundamental part of this core capacity building.”

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