Becoming a Strategic IT Leader

How the CIO of Oakwood Worldwide learned to provide greater business value

Before I could build IT’s value, I first had to understand my peers’ goals. It was as important for me to make time for personal conversations as it was for my team to deliver on time a project that would truly meet users’ and customers’ needs.

It started, of course, with establishing IT’s credibility. This took several years, because while being a reliable provider of useful solutions is the basis of credibility, it was difficult and important to help certain managers in my organization become business experts. They are more than liaisons; they are the people in the IT group who fully understand what the company and our customers need.

I realized that I needed leaders in that role after I got a taste of what understanding those internal and external needs could do for me as a CIO and for Oakwood as a growing company.

Once we had established a base level of trust in IT’s capabilities, I sat down with my counterparts in other departments, including the senior VP of sales. She talked about what she and her team were seeing in the field, what she wished they could do better, and I came to a realization. While I had wanted simply to further solidify my understanding of other functions, in those meetings I stumbled across what I could do to raise IT’s value even more: Listen to users and customers at every level.

Personally, it helps that my company president is my former boss, the previous CIO of Oakwood. He has been a tremendous mentor to me. Not everyone has that kind of obvious connection, but I believe it is vitally important to find someone to fill that role for you if you are going to make the leap from credibility to partner and peer.

Beyond giving me advice, he also ensured that I now sit on the executive committee, where all company strategy is decided and action plans are determined. The trust I’d gained led me there, but it was then up to me to keep that seat. And experiencing how the committee works has been an even better lesson. We do not talk about sales plans, or IT plans, but about strategic needs to grow the company and provide better service, and ideas are welcomed from any member of the committee.

I didn’t want to rely on on-the-job learning, though. I sought out the management program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where I learned the value of networking, communication and listening. When I brought that back into the corporate environment, it helped me go from just being at the executive committee table to being an active, strategic participant.

I’m still learning what more I can do to advance my and IT’s role, and drive value for the company. But I know I have already succeeded in making a significant change in my approach and in my peers’ understanding. In the middle of the poor economy of the last few years—and the budget cuts and freezes—I got approval for the replacement of a major legacy system. This happened because I didn’t sell it as just replacing a failing system, but as making a necessary upgrade to help the company move forward. That focus on strategy and results that I have gained makes me a more valuable business leader and CIO.

Marina Lubinsky is senior VP and CIO at Oakwood Worldwide, a real esatate-management company. She’s a member of the CIO Executive Council.

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