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

Trust is the key

Trust is the word most often cited by GS1 Australia’s CEO, Maria Palazzolo, and CIO, Stephen Perreira, to describe their working relationship.

Formerly Global Standards One, the organisation is a core part of Australia’s supply chain infrastructure and co-ordinates barcode standards and national supply chain data synchronisation through a central product database used by more than 16,000 Australian businesses.

“The CIO is critical to my business – and for any business with any reliance on IT, it’s a critical role,” says Palazzolo.

She was the person who hired Perreira, a former Coles IT executive, over a decade ago and the two have worked together seamlessly since and clearly share strong mutual respect. “He is probably one of the most reliable people I’ve ever worked with in my entire life,” Palazzolo says.

Perreira is equally complimentary. “Maria has great vision,” he says. “Thanks to her trust and her willingness to have flexibility, we have been able to do things in the IT area that have very long-term positive consequences.”

Perreira has an interest in educating business and IT students about supply chain and has brought a number of IT and business interns into the organisation.

“I see our involvement in education and research at universities not only as a contribution to future leaders in the supply chain, but also delivering positive benefits to our organisation because we see into their field of learning and we can take back what is new in the curriculum.”

The key focus of the GS1 CIO-CEO relationship reflects the findings of IBM’s global CEO survey which reported that CEOs need to learn new technologies from their own networks and team with their c-level executives.

Palazzolo says she relies on her CIO to educate her and keep her up-to-date with technology, while Perreira says his CEO’s support allows him to encourage his colleagues in the business to come to him with business problems, not technology solutions.

“Steven has huge experience from industry engagement and his long career here at GS1, plus his 17 years in various other jobs, means he understands an enormous array of different technologies,” she says.

“I am the first to say I am not a technology buff, but IT is the core focus of our business, so I rely on him to make things that are really complex simple for me.”

Palazzolo points out business needs drive technology and her role is awareness of the business environment. “Understanding the issues that the industry is encountering, what their needs are, how we can come up with solutions – that leads to identifying the technology. I don’t know how any business can survive without the right technology for their business.”

Just as the CEO needs to keep on top of the business environment, Palazzolo relies on Perreira to keep a ‘watching brief’ on the technology scene. “It’s not a small task, looking at the full gamut of technology.”

Perreira says he’s able to achieve smart solutions, both for his own business and for those of his customers, because he knows his CEO has his back. “The main challenges I face are that those in business operations want to determine the end product; there’s a tendency for people in the business to go shopping for solutions,” he says.

Perreira is constantly reminding operational staff that they need to tell him what their business problem is and what they want to do to solve it, rather than what technology they want. With Palazzolo backing him up, that’s a message that’s getting through strongly.

Perreira advises CIOs who want to strengthen their relationship with their CEO to understand what motivates them. “It’s important to understand what drives your CEO; if you can catch the same passion and drive and enthusiasm, if you are in the same slipstream, then you can’t help developing a good working relationship with them.”

How to charm the entire executive team

It’s not just the top chief CIOs need to worry about. The communications gap can also be wide between the CIO and the board, making it difficult for IT to gain an appropriate voice at the executive table.

At the recent CIO Summit in Sydney, executive mentor, Christina Gillies, delivered advice on how CIOs can better connect with the board and provide directors with a useful and non-confusing picture of IT and its contribution to business strategy.

To understand the board, CIOs should think like the board, Gillies said. Board directors do not have an IT background and largely base their IT knowledge on what they read in the media. Also, they hear the most about the IT department when there is an outage, she said.

Often, directors go into “react mode”, demanding papers about what’s being done about the latest outage and seeking detailed tracking of new projects, she said.

Be the educator

A CIO can provide comfort to the board by giving them a clearer picture of what’s happening in IT and by showing opportunities for technology to contribute to the business, Gillies said. The CIO should teach the board what technology is being used, how well it supports the business now, and how well it will support the business in the future. The CIO should also keep the board updated on technology trends and the opportunities they may bring to the business long-term, she said.

Develop fundamental communication tools

The CIO should show the board conceptual pictures of the present and future IT architectures, and a roadmap to the future linking technology initiatives to business outcomes, Gillies said. IT should be tied to asset replacement schedules, order of magnitude costs and return on investment.

Reporting is critical to keep the board updated on how current systems are running and what progress has been made toward the roadmap. It’s also useful to provide a one-page risk profile for IT, she said.

Get on the agenda

“Once you’ve got the fundamentals in place ... do a test run on the CEO and the business executives,” Gillies said. Once executives respond positively, “suggest to the CEO that it would be useful to get on the board’s agenda annually”, she said. Writing a bimonthly IT performance report for the board is a further aid to engagement.

Use English

“Simple pictures tell the story, not architectural masterpieces,” said Gillies. When illustrating IT systems or writing a roadmap, CIOs should remember that other executives do not have the same level of technical know-how. This advice also applies when talking to board members in person, she said.

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