CIOs discuss their evolving role

The CIO role has changed into a digital role. How well are CIOs succeeding remains an important topic and was one that several CIOs discussed a few weeks ago when the coronavirus crisis was in its early stages. Their answers provide guidance as they claw their way out of the current crisis.

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Over the last year, it has become increasingly clear in my conversations with CIOs that change is afoot. The CIO role is different and expectations  are different as well. And while CIOs by necessity need to focus during the current coronavirus crisis to keep the trains running, it is still important to take stock of the CIO’s longer-term role.

CIO Jonathan Feldman said, “be very careful about introducing changes in the middle of a crisis situation. Innovation by definition equals change, and a crisis has lots of changes already. There better be substantial benefit vs. new aggregate risk.” And David Chou added, “focus on the core.  For healthcare, CIOs should be focusing on supporting the remote working staff at a larger scale and providing the platform for virtual care.”

With this said, how the CIO role is changing into a digital role and how CIOs are succeeding at this change remains an important topic. This was the issue that I put forward to the CIOs a few weeks ago in the #CIOChat before the crisis was in full swing. I think their answers provide guidance to CIOs and the CEOs that they work with as both claw their way out of the current crisis.

Are CIOs succeeding in making theirs a strategic role?

To my surprise, CIOs said no. Former CIO, Tim Crawford said, “there is an aspiration to evolve the CIO role, but it will take time. It takes more than just a visionary CIO to make the change.” Crawford added that “it is like a three-legged race. There are three components that need to evolve ...and  in unison: The CIO, the IT organization, and the rest of the company in terms of how they view IT.”

Fortunately, CIO Milos Topic, says, “some CIOs have done quite well at this change.” The ones that haven't, says CIO Martin Davis, is because “you have CIOs who are still really just IT directors and others that are going to be the next CEO and are defining new business models.”

Clearly, there is a reason for this. Crawford suggests that “the CIO title has been given to many great IT leaders as a promotion. Yet, some of these leaders don't function as a CIO. Many are still operating as a director or VP. Too many CIOs are inwardly focused rather than outwardly focused.”

For CEOs listening, it is critical to select the right person with the right mindset and the ability to build supportive relationship with the rest of the C-level team. This means the CIO role is very different than the CTO role. It clearly can be industry-dependent. While most are trying to get there, there are still some companies who continue to see IT as a utility versus a business differentiator.

CIO Aldo Ceccarelli says, “there is a role for the CEO in the CIO’s success as a strategic thinker. Today CIOs can actively contribute to the top line of their organization if only they have a strategic role.” CIO Wayne Saldin agrees and says, “CEOs get the CIOs they settle for If CEO doesn't fix whatever is wrong, it's on them.”

Achieving the strategic mantel

CIOs clearly need to work daily to build and sustain relationships and partnerships which will help lay the ground work for seizing the strategic mantel. Martin Davis says, “ideally the CIO should be driving four key things: 1. Building a strong IT team; 2. Strong relationships across the C-Suite and board; 3. Reducing technical debt; and 4. Driving revenue and innovation.”.

Crawford agrees and adds, “relationships are a key requirement for being a successful CIO.” Clearly, by being relationship-focused, CIOs can gain the perspective needed to ensure IT’s focus is upon business objectives common with the rest of the c-suite.

Paul Wright, Accuride CIOs, says, “this is so much a part of being a better CIO. It is not just about making sure you build relationships but also being open to feedback. The balance is finding where you need to set the direction, and where you need to be a facilitator.”

Alignment to business initiatives

Clearly, CIOs better be aligned with business goals. If not, then the CIO should be asking themselves what they are doing and why. Davis said that “even though I am early into my new role, I have already agreed with the C-suite on the business led priorities and the necessary IT governance.”

 Topic is candid and admits that this “wasn’t always the case and we can always continue to do better. What would also be helpful is for the overall leadership to regularly review those priorities with respect to market forces and relevance.” Part of succeeding here says Wright is, “CIOs putting smart people around themselves so they're not trying to solve every problem yourself, and of course, this requires time management avoiding problems that don't need to be solved.

How should CIOs manage an increasing scope of responsibility at a faster pace?

 “This is where strong leadership comes into play. You need a strong leadership team that is capable and empowered to make decisions on its own. CIOs can no longer be in constant fire-fighting mode. Here their team has little to no capacity for innovation,” Wright says.

This clearly needs to be the first thing that a CIO has to change. Effective CIOs are Level 5 leaders as defined in the “Good to Great.” According to Jim Collins, “Level 5 leadership cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom, especially the belief that we need larger-than-life saviors with big personalities to transform companies, it is important to note that Level 5 is an empirical finding, not an ideological one.” Aldo Ceccarelli agrees and says, build a strong and united team that can drive consensus and knows the difference between important and urgent.

What metrics adequately gauge a CIO’s performance?

CIO metrics clearly should align with the business metrics. According to Crawford, “they should not be technology or IT metrics like uptime, SLAs, etc. Uptime is not a good metric to use externally outside of IT. You have to focus on the business metrics.”

Some wanted a broader set of metrics. While Analyst Bob Egan says, “success metrics of a CIO must align with business metrics,” he leaves open “unique metrics like system + infrastructure up time.”

Davis says “it’s a portfolio of metrics and they should be business-focused metrics. However, there are more IT specific metrics such as performance of the IT support team, which are not business metrics, but are important to measure too (support does touch business users).”

This led to a vigorous discussion between Crawford and Davis. Davis said, “instead of uptime how about business time lost caused by system downtime, convert that time into dollars.” Crawford responded by saying “candidly, this is table stakes today. You have to look well beyond that. Yes, but the IT metrics (system uptime) are for IT consumption only. They aren't business metrics.”

Crawford continued by saying if you have to ask how you sit at the big table, you probably should not be there. And once you earn your spot, you have to keep earning it.” Davis suggested specific metrics including the following: 1) Customer experience/satisfaction; 2) Innovation index; 3) Information security; 4) Enterprise architecture reliability, redundancy, performance, and security; 5) Reducing friction, time spent and expenses for all. Ceccarelli added the following: 6) business value added by innovating; 7) savings enabled from new technology; 8) the number of CEO top concerns met; 9) the number of customers with unmet requirements and 10) the number of complaints for IT.

Parting Words

It's time that CIOs seize the strategic mantel, align totally with the business and judge their performance the way the business does. Otherwise, they will not succeed as they power out of the current crisis.