Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, was once quoted as saying: “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” Most people would agree that’s also a good gauge of what others really think about you.
Building the right image is everything in modern business, yet there are plenty of CIOs who still struggle to be viewed as strategic leaders within their organisations. And despite increasing willingness to take a larger role in business strategy, there are still too many IT chiefs being labelled ‘geeks’ and who lead cost centres prone to unnecessary wastage.
“In general, I would say CIOs do have an image problem,” says Fi Slaven, a former CIO and now general manager at chartered accountancy firm, William Buck.
She lays the blame at the fact that CIOs are often being been told what they are, rather than crafting the right perception of themselves.
“One of the things IT people are not good at generally is public relations or marketing,” she says. “As a comparison, look at HR, which never used to be its own department: Organisations have been convinced we can’t do without HR.
“They have stamped their reason why they should [exist], whereas in IT, I don’t think we have.”
The image problem has been partly fuelled by negative conversations around the role of senior technology staff, Slaven claims.
“It’s about who’s running the conversations and how they are being directed,” she continues. “When I hear someone say ‘the IT geek’ I say ‘no, they’re not geeks, they’re just consumers with a bit more knowledge’. I actively try to change that conversation.”
William Buck's Fi Slaven: CIOs haven't stamped their reason why they should exist
At William Buck, IT is valued as much as HR and marketing because the three departments work together and speak a common language, Slaven explains.
“Every conversation, whether it’s at the water cooler or with the broader executive team, requires you to clearly articulate the complexity, and to not make it so technical that you are talking yourself up,” she says. “It’s about showing the value you can add to the business.”
A role in crisis?
For all the talk about CIOs getting a seat at the executive table, working with other departments and gaining the respect they deserve, there are a number of big name companies that have removed the role altogether.
In January 2014, large construction and engineering firm, Leighton Contractors, restructured its technology team and eliminated the CIO role following Diane Fernley-Jones’ departure.
Super Retail Group did not look for a CIO replacement when Alan Hesketh left after four-and-a-half years at the helm, and Westfield said it would not be replacing long serving CIO, Peter Bourke, after he quit his post in December.
Whether or not these decisions had anything to do with how each CIO role was perceived internally is unknown, but what it does say is there are companies that feel information and technology strategy can be driven by other senior executives.
On the flipside, there are organisations that value the CIO’s role more highly than others. One is Westpac Bank, where the CIO, Dave Curran, now reports to new CEO, Brian Hartzer, rather than to COO, John Arthur.
This recent shift reflects Hartzer’s interest in how technology is being used to significantly improve customer service at the bank.
CIO at fertility organisation, Genea and CIO Executive Council director, Peter Nevin, says the recent changes at Westpac reflect positively on the CIO role and the way IT delivers business value, rather than pure operational efficiency, at the bank.
“The CIO has been elevated to a point where the mechanical part is starting to disappear and the role is becoming totally business focused,” he comments.
“It’s at this point that the CEO feels they can engage directly with the CIO. “I’ve been in an organisation that has flipped in exactly this way. It took two or three years to get IT to a point where it was viewed as delivering business solutions as opposed to IT.”
But in organisations where the tech boss is working further down the management chain, is the CIO position potentially in crisis? And does personal image have anything to do with it?
According to former Credit Union Australia CIO, David Gee, businesses face very different circumstances, meaning the value of the CIO role – like every position in management – can quickly turn on its head.
He also notes the longevity of a CIO’s tenure appears to be shortening to about three years.
“Perhaps that’s what we are witnessing – organisations’ clock cycles have wound up and there’s a natural staging occurring,” Gee says.
David Gee: Meaning of the value of the CIO role can quickly turn on its head
Bridget Gray, managing director at executive recruitment firm, Harvey Nash, is not concerned about the future of the CIO but agrees the priorities in this role are changing fast.
She also says CIOs lacking a strong personal brand risk being left off the shortlist for a new position.
“A lot of the companies we work for might struggle to find people for a period of time because they have a leader that perhaps isn’t able to internally promote their staff,” she says.
“That’s a retention issue as well. If you look at why technologists stay within IT departments and don’t move into a new job, a lot of it is around trusting their leader and feeling they are working for the right person who can give them clear direction.”
If a CIO is not willing to go in to bat for their team and internally champion the value their department delivers, people leave and go where they do feel valued, Gray says.
“You do need that figurehead to raise the profile [of the IT group],” she adds.
Being a CIO is often a tough gig and people don’t stay as long as they do in other positions, especially when they feel they’re not as valued by the executive team, claims Slaven.
“It frustrates me that we are very qualified and still reporting to other people continually – I don’t understand that, especially when those CIOs are the most qualified executives sitting in the room and yet they are still answering to the CFO or COO,” Slaven says.
“Personally, in a [former] role I couldn’t get a seat at the table, no matter what I did. So I left, which was a shame.”
Gee recalls jobs during his career when he reported to the CFO and had a discussion early in the role so both parties knew where they stood.
“I’ve always had a heart-to-heart with them and said: ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, my job is not to make you happy and give you a nice ERP system, my job is to deliver value across the organisation’,” he says.
“‘That might mean at times that I’ll go and do things with the marketing guy instead of you, and I want you to know that because it’s going to happen.’
“That’s part of being a partner, not just a doormat. I’ve told the story a few times and people laugh … but that’s how you really should be managing your boss,” Gee says.
Although Nevin agrees CIOs haven’t been good at marketing themselves in a general sense, he believes they can “make the perfect victims” for organisations when things don’t go so well.
Gee has also worked in organisations where the IT team and the CIO have perceived themselves as victims, rather than equal business contributors, to their detriment.
“They say ‘no-one pays attention to us and they want us to deliver all this hard stuff’. That’s a victim mentality,” he says.
According to Nevin, organisations go through cycles where IT shifts from being a poor cousin to a strategic business imperative. This could be a reflection of everything from IT systems to the type of individual running IT and their experience, he says.
“In the last five years, I’ve walked into four jobs where IT is in exactly that situation of just managing the hardware,” he says. “This hasn’t been an image problem, but a capability problem of the individual who was managing the department.”
It’s possible to turn that around so IT is a business partner and considered a part of the way the organisation enables itself, he says. “It’s not the CIO’s role, it’s the individuals in my opinion that are in the CIO role,” Nevin says.
“Individuals who come with a branding problem can go into an organisation that is in good shape and make it bad, or go into an organisation in bad shape and continue to make it bad.
“The CIO role is very effective in making an organisation great but unfortunately, the reverse is true as well.”
A badly executed CIO role can cause massive damage to an organisation, Nevin admits. But if you’re good at the role, the positive perception of IT can be magnified several fold, too.
There’s also an element of ‘preciousness’, he claims, or a feeling that the CIO role is not totally understood by the rest of the organisation.
This is common across all c-level positions and not unique to IT chiefs, Nevin says.Read more: CIO Executive Council launches Pathways Express
“CIOs who are aware of that, and who have set their expectations in terms of the way they interact with the organisation, will find the role is a lot more fulfilling,” he adds.
Whatever your opinion on how CIOs craft their personal brand, there are clear changes afoot in what CEOs want from today’s CIO.
Historically, the recruitment conversation used to focus heavily on project and operational success, says Gray. Today, 80 per cent of the brief and conversation with the CIO or board is about behaviours.
“It’s all about transformational leadership: Are they [CIOs] able to champion a vision and galvanise that vision? Are they able to speak at conferences to raise their profile so an organisation can attract better talent into the IT department to support strategy?
"It never used to be like that,” Gray says.
CIOs often feel uncomfortable with self-promotion but if they don’t do anything to improve their personal brand they may be letting down their team, department, and the wider business, Gray says.
“CIOs don’t need to do a speaking circuit, but they do need to work on how they are perceived in the market and what their strengths are,” she says.
“But it needs to be authentic. “If you have a strong brand as a CIO, you gain more career opportunities because people are willing to recommend those they know can navigate presenting to their executives and peers.
Internally, you get the board’s ear and you have more influence if you are a good presenter, because your personal brand is strong and they know you are credible.”
It could be argued CIOs and their teams are just as, if not more, important than other business segments of an organisation, says Jaid Hulsbosch, director at brand management and strategy organisation, Hulsbosch.
The best way to demonstrate this could be through a negative situation. He points to incidents such as the Y2K scare or more recent Heartbleed vulnerability, which highlighted the importance of technology experts.
Adversity is sometimes the greatest moment for more obscure contributors of an organisation to prove their worth, he says.
Jaid Hulsbosch: Adversity the best moment for obscure contributions to prove their worth
“On these occasions, CIOs’ expertise ‘saved the day’ and ensured the smooth, seamless operation of businesses around the country,” he comments.
“It is important to take advantage of your increased profile at these times and use this momentum to educate teams and develop relationships with key executives.”
What you can do to improve your brand
Hulsbosch’s Jaid Hulsbosch says one of the most important things CIOs need to do to show value and change perceptions of their role internally is to emphasise and demonstrate how they can assist and cut costs for each department.
“The biggest resource is the CIO team itself – to become advocates for what an IT division is trying to achieve each day. The team resolve is the centrepiece to achieving a new image that overcomes any ‘geek’ labels,” he says.
“No matter how good your service is, your year-on-year achievements, or how elite your team is, if the CIO’s team doesn’t ‘walk the talk’, CIOs are wasting their time.”
William Buck’s Fi Slaven says you don’t want to be known as the ‘CI no’ – today’s focus must be on keeping projects moving, innovating and showing that they are of value.
Slaven recalls her time in a previous CIO role, sitting around the boardroom table with other c-level executives and being the only person who was under budget.
“Our uptime was good, projects were on time and on budget but I was still getting hammered, and the five gentleman at the table were all not making budget, so why were they focusing on me?” she asks.
The only way other executives were going to make budget was to get her to make more savings.
“They made promises they couldn’t keep,” Slaven says. “So, sometimes it’s about that branding, knowing when to be firm, when to be supportive – it’s all about timing and communication.”
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly