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Bartholomew Cubbins, Redux September 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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The best part of blogging is what you learn from your readers. My recent post on the role of the CIO generated some outstanding comments extending that conversation in several directions.  Given the thought put into the commentary, I thought I’d use a full post to reply rather than add to the comment stream.  You may want to read the comments that prompted this post before reading further.  It’s OK; I’ll wait.

Now we can go in several directions:

What is the role of the CIO?

Kumud raised the idea of a “classic” CIO that is concerned solely with technology, in contrast with a “contemporary” CIO that is a more engaged business leader.  I understand the distinction but think that a successful CIO is both.  I think a CIO is defined to be “the senior executive who manages an organization that delivers IT-based services in support of the business goals of the company.”  I believe there is a direct parallel with the finance, HR, and legal groups in a company; one can simply replace “IT-based” with the appropriate discipline to create similar roles for these service groups.

As I’ve written before (and in contrast to Kumud) I think that the CIO serves the organization directly, not the customers outside of the organization.  As such, the provided services are used by other organizations to perform their functions effectively.  I also think the services fall into two broad categories: infrastructure and consulting.

Infrastructure is obvious.  No matter what else they do, the CIO needs to keep the lights on.  This used to be the be-all and end-all of our job; we’ve now gotten so good at it that we are moving on to the consultative role.  CIOs know a lot about technology exploitation, business process optimization, and intra-departmental synergies.  CIOs now struggle to get the visibility and opportunity to deliver these “softer” services to the company.

Abbie Lundberg points out that good CIOs are effective in delivering these softer services and should be used in that capacity as much as possible.  I generally agree, but I think we differ in deciding how far a CIO can go in this role.  I am strongly tied to a CIO being a consultant to the true internal business owner; I suspect Abbie would allow a CIO to cross that line.

What about personal and career growth?

Which brings us to the points raised by Susan Mazza and John Charnovich.  How can a person grow and expand their skills if they are in the “box” of a technology-focused CIO?

I am drawing a distinction between the role of a CIO and the individual who fills that role.  The role changes slowly over time, but generally stays unchanged with respect to the organization.  The individual, on the other hand, grows and changes and hopefully contributes more and more to the organization.  How do you rectify a growing individual in a static role?

I think that’s where the consultative part of the job comes in.  CIOs that want to spread their wings and learn more about the business can spend more of their time working with the business (Kumud’s contemporary CIO) and less time keeping the lights on (his classic CIO).  To support Susan, Abbie, and John’s points, the CIO grows and contributes in that consultative role as they gain personal skills and deliver greater value across the business.

Can a CIO take on additional roles?

A CIO that successfully expands their consultative skills will one day be presented with the opportunity to own a bigger piece of the business.  As Kumud and John note, CIOs can (and should) be growing into bigger business roles, much like a CFO may some day become a CEO.

My original point is that a CIO should not wear multiple hats, much like a CFO typically does not also wear the CEO hat.  Instead, the CIO will be faced with a decision: keep the CIO hat and stay in that role, or exchange it for a different hat and a different role.  As Kumud notes, someone who takes on more and more hats is destined to fail; part of owning many hats is finding people to wear them for you. As you grow your role in the company, backfill the CIO position so that you can better focus on your broader responsibilities.

I think there is an additional hazard for CIOs wearing multiple hats: the threat of playing favorites.  CIOs work hard to be objective in providing services to all parts of the company equally.  If you provide the services and run a group that consumes them, at some point you will be accused of favoring yourself, which could make your life a bit difficult.

Can this compromise your credibility?

We often speak about CIOs becoming more business-focused, moving beyond our technology roles.  We fret about being the “executive nerd,” about our pure business skills being overlooked when the company seeks candidates for new leadership opportunities.  Some think that the opportunity to engage in areas outside of IT, even if driven by our technical knowledge, demonstrates that CIOs are moving into a more mainstream leadership role.

The opposite may be the case.  Being asked to join a product development team because you have important technical skills is nothing more than a high-level version of being asked to run the projector at an executive meeting.  If you continue to look for ways to grow beyond the role of the CIO that involve applying your technical skills to other parts of the business, you are still trading on your “classic CIO” foundation.  The real measure of your success in moving beyond the role of CIO is when you get invited to expand your contributions in ways that have nothing to do with technology.  That’s the real, pure, business role we all ultimately seek.

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1. Susan Mazza - September 21, 2009

Wonderful synopsis Chuck. For me you also provided a lot of clarity here re: your original line of thinking. One key point that sticks with me out of all of this is that we must always first and foremost stay true to the promises we make and must keep given what we are accountable for now.

2. Dan Folwick - September 23, 2009

Chuck, I see a future presentation at a CIO Forum on this very thing.
Perhaps for Charlotte on June 2 – 3 of 2010? I’ll keep you posted.
Nicely Done!!

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