The Business Leader CIO: Pinstripes and Process

Straddling the business-technology divide is second nature for this CIO who relies on communication and collaboration to get the job done.

Using data from the State of the CIO 2007 survey, we extracted four varieties of the CIO speciesBusiness Leader, Innovation Agent, Operational Expert and Turnaround Artist.

Definition: Business Leaders put a premium on understanding business processes; they describe communication, leadership and management skills as core competencies. Their priorities are aligning IT and business goals, using technology to improve business processes, and controlling costs.

David McCampbell can’t stand the sight of blood. That never posed a problem for him professionally until he became vice president of worldwide information services for Immucor three years ago. McCampbell is an IT leader for whom a thorough understanding of business processes and operations is paramount to his success. And at Immucor, a maker of pretransfusion diagnostics products, the business is blood. "Me working here is kind of a joke," says McCampbell, who held IT roles at software companies. But soon after he was hired, he learned to steel his stomach and dug in to the IT processes that support Immucor’s line of systems to screen in vitro blood. Even today, McCampbell spends as much time thinking about and observing things like antibody screening as he does on information technology itself. He knows that blood, not IT, drives the business. "I understand that sales are important; revenues drive business. And what’s important are the processes by which we can make those revenues grow," he says. "I can bring that to the table. That makes me as much a business leader as I am an IT leader."

McCampbell is the typical Business Leader CIO. This straddler of the technology-business divide is the dominant archetype working today, accounting for 43 percent of respondents to our "State of the CIO" survey.

For these CIOs, tactical skills like technical proficiency and in-depth knowledge of IT take a back seat to achieving their top strategic priorities: aligning IT and business goals (67 percent) and using technology to improve business processes (53 percent). Not surprising, they interact more with CXOs and businesspeople than other archetypes and spend the least time managing IT crises. And you won’t hear Business Leaders talk much about IT projects—they’re focused on business initiatives. Yet understanding technology remains critical for these CIOs to manage their staff and the expectations of the business.

Strengths

Frank John Wiggins has been all four CIO archetypes at one time or another. But at the Boston Beer Company, where he’s been director of information technology for five years, he’s firmly in the Business Leader camp. "It’s all about the beer here," says Wiggins. "It’s not about IT." Like most Business Leader CIOs, he says communication is the key to supporting and enabling the business objectives and optimizing its processes. "You can’t just read a list of business priorities on paper and say, ’Oh, I understand it all now,’" says Wiggins. "You have to know what’s truly behind the strategy to offer the best IT options."

For instance, he says, a typical conversation with the head of sales might start with a discussion regarding a business objective: raise gross sales by X percent. The sales chief will explain how he could make the sales force more effective. That often comes down to getting them better information faster or easier. That will lead to a conversation with Wiggins about how IT might make that happen.

Collaboration is part of a Business Leader’s DNA. When Neal Guernsey became vice president and CIO of Feld Entertainment, he created an outline of IT’s mission: to partner with the business to create and deliver technology solutions that support business needs. IT had lacked that customer service mind-set before Guernsey joined the provider of live action family entertainment.

Delivering on the new mission required him to reach out to partners in the business units to find out what they weren’t getting from IT. Guernsey also needed to inspire and enable his IT staff of 30 to partner with the business to deliver appropriate technology solutions. To help, he instituted customer service training and instituted new policies and processes for working with business partners. For years, Feld Entertainment creative teams had suffered in relative silence behind their Windows-based PCs, unable to work effectively with their external partners working on Macs; IT had a PC-only policy and refused to budge. Today, IT supports both platforms, says Guernsey, who credits his collaborative tendencies to his years as a Navy fighter pilot and teamwork in previous IT jobs: "When you’re on an aircraft carrier, you’re focused on operations and doing what it takes to get things done. It’s all about collaboration and cooperation. And I apply that to IT."

Innovation isn’t high on the list of priorities for Business Leader CIOs—just 3 percent said it was a dominant part of their role. And Bennett Cikoch, vice president of IT for Midas International, is the first to admit that. "I don’t generate any big ideas," he says. He and his team will make independent decisions related to, say, switching to a cheaper telecom provider or keeping security up to snuff—"the nuts and bolts stuff," he says. "But when it comes to the direction and functionality of systems, that all comes from the business. They tell me what needs to be done." But don’t be fooled—Cikoch and his business leader brethren are much more than order takers. The successful Business Leader collaborates closely with business partners to define and achieve enterprise goals.

Then there’s budgeting. Business Leaders spend more time on budgeting (32 percent). And they must be pretty good at it: They’ve got the second largest budgets, just behind the Turnaround Artist. "Being able to live and die by a budget is key," says Immucor’s McCampbell.

Budgeting savvy gives a CIO street cred with the business. John Parker, executive vice president and CIO of A.G. Edwards & Sons, drills that fiscal responsibility into his staff, surprising them with questions like "How much revenue does it take to increase our earnings by one cent?" Parker knows the answer ($7.5 million) and his staff had better, too. "You have to make sure they understand why they need to be good stewards of the business resources."

Challenges

Guernsey’s a textbook Business Leader CIO. But in his job, he works with a lot of clowns. Literally. Feld Entertainment puts on such shows as Disney on Ice and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. So his constituents include everyone from accountants to animal trainers. One business unit runs an elephant sanctuary in Florida, another rebuilds the train cars that bring the circus to town and another oversees the custom manufacturing of all the goodies sold at the shows. Guernsey must work with each to move the whole business forward. "The challenge for me is maintaining it," says Guernsey, who keeps a list of strategic goals on his office wall. "It’s easy to say, I made these initial gains and that worked well. It’s maintaining that level of communication and coordination that’s hard."

Another common trap for this breed of CIO: getting bogged down in business processes. McCampbell and his team recently worked with a third-party vendor to replace a legacy system with a system with better functionality and technology.

"What they do is very complex," he says. "I may want to get in deep, to get that perspective, but I may not need to. It may not be the most valuable use of my time."

Another danger for the Business Leader is confusing the role of "business partner" with "business pushover." "My biggest challenge is taking on too much," says Wiggins. Boston Beer is a leading brewer of handcrafted beer, with $238 million in annual revenue, but it is dwarfed by the competition. "We compete with multibillion-dollar organizations and the business may want to match them step for step," says Wiggins. But his staff of seven doesn’t have the resources to do that. "I have to focus on what will bring value," he says.

And while these CIOs bestride IT and the business, they often pay more attention to IT’s customer-facing side, potentially to the detriment of operations. "Business Leaders, because they spend a lot of time with the business, are stronger on the demand side," says Ellen Kitzis, vice president of research at Gartner. "But they need to be equally strong on the supply side. If they don’t understand the investment that needs to be made there, they could drive ahead of where they can actually deliver." You can forget that "partnership" with the business when there’s a big security breach or the server goes down at a critical time.

Managing this potential weakness involves utilizing one of the Business Leader’s strengths: leading staff. "To be carving out time to be running the business, I have to have really good people on my team running the technology environment," says Parker of A.G. Edwards. "You have to play to your strengths. Micromanaging the data center would not be playing to my strengths. "

And while most Business Leaders will gladly tell you their days of technical proficiency are long behind them, they must understand technology options to be credible with their staff and the business. "I definitely can’t talk to my developers about Java specifics anymore. And it takes more and more work for me to stay current with my understanding of technology," says Parker. "But my job is to commit the IT organization to a set of activities on behalf of the business. If I don’t understand technology and what we’re capable of, I will not commit them effectively."

Your Best Fit

There aren’t a lot of organizations where a Business Leader couldn’t do some good. Although they are more likely to work in manufacturing, healthcare and financial services, we found these IT leaders in organizations of all sizes across diverse industries. But there may be certain business environments tailor made for them.

Complex organizations, for one, benefit from their touch. This CIO "provides the most value in an organization that’s multifaceted," says Guernsey. A company driven by technology, on the other hand, may not get the most value out of the Business Leader. "If you are a software development company, I’m not sure the head of IT needs to be this kind of CIO," says Wiggins of Boston Beer. "A Business Leader may be better suited to a consumer products company or any organization where IT plays more of a support role enabling innovation, growth, cost savings or change management."

As for office politics, the less, the better. Such jockeying pains a CIO who thrives on cooperation. McCampbell can stomach the sight of blood but not expending energy on political maneuvering. His time is better spent making changes for the business. "I know there’s politics—or a degree of it—everywhere. And some people thrive on that," he says. "But most people like me see it as waste of time."

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