by Pat Brans

COO Sheila Flavell explains why CEO is a natural next step for CIOs

Nov 23, 2015

To find out more about how Chief Operating Officer’s view the CIO role, we sat down with Sheila Flavell, COO of FDM Group. No ordinary COO, Flavell was named one of the “100 Women to Watch” in a 2014 FTSE report. [See also: From CIO to CEO – CIOs who made the step up to become CEO]

Pat Brans: What are the traits that make the best CIO? Sheila Flavell: Nowadays a CIO must be able to communicate the impact of technology decisions in terms of business outcomes. So they have to be a lot more business savvy than ever before and much more commercially aware. A good CIO these days needs to be an accountant, a technologist, a salesman, an evangelist, and probably a politician too. A strong CIO has to be “Jack of all trades”.

Twenty years ago the CIO would have been predominantly a technical person. Nowadays, they usually start their careers as a techie, but then they have to learn much more about business as they move up. They work their way up from engineer to project manager, then to programme manager, which would be a natural springboard to launch their career into their first CIO position.

A CIO has to be an innovator and an early adopter. We’re talking about someone who is a “completer finisher”. And speed is absolutely critical. A CIO has to act fast and smart, deploying new technology with haste. Otherwise, by the time you deploy it, it’s out of date.

To be a CIO you have to be fiscally astute because technology is an expensive game — maybe not buying it, but buying the resources to work the technology into the organisation and using your resources effectively.

I also think a CIO has to able to take a global market view. Not only should they look at what’s happening in their organisation, they have to look around the world to see what’s emerging in other markets.

Technology is not a question of nice to have; it’s more like a need to have. The CIO has to convince other senior members of the organisation — whoever holds the purse strings — that this bit of kit they want to buy is going to provide greater business benefits. So CIOs have to be commercially astute and aware.

Nowadays, more CIOs are becoming CEO; and that is testament to the amount of business savviness a CIO possesses. Back in the days when a CIO was predominantly technical, it wasn’t very common for a CIO to progress into the CEO role. Now that they are generalists and have a high level of business acumen, they possess what’s necessary to thrive in today’s business jungle.

An experienced CIO could easily become the COO or the CEO.

PB: Do you think the CIO should report directly to the CEO of should he or she report to the CFO or COO? Sheila Flavell: The CIO should most definitely report to the CEO. The consequence of failure in IT could have dire consequences to a business. With all the cyber crime out there, Big Data and Cloud services, we’re more open than ever to attack. If this occurs, the CEO has to know immediately, because he or she is ultimately responsible.

In any industry, and in any organisation, the CIO is always a very senior person with valuable experience. The CIO should sit on the executive board, and that is fairly common. Depending on the size of the company, the CIO might also sit on the main board.

When the CIO reports to either the CFO or the COO, all you do is create a layer between the CIO and the CEO, and the speed with which the CEO learns of issues becomes slower. I can’t think of why the CIO would report to the CFO, except for budgetary reasons.

As COO, I oversee the operational running of the business. I can see the rationale of having the CIO report to the COO in some businesses.  I think that differs from company to company; and a lot depends on the size of the organisation.

Having said that, in some cases it does make sense for the CIO not to report to the CEO. For example, if you look at a bank like HSBC or Credit Suisse, you couldn’t possibly have the CIO report to the CEO because of the size and breadth of the company.

PB: What challenges do you see with the CIO role, or with the IT department in general, over the next few years? Sheila Flavell: The biggest challenges I see in the next few years are people challenges. The skills gap is widening and there is a shortage of IT skills in the marketplace. And that’s where FDM comes in! This year we are training and launching the careers of one thousand skilled IT resources in the UK.

I just read a government report that says only 16% of IT graduates are female. That’s extremely worrying, because 50% of the population is female. If we don’t get more women into IT, IT departments will certainly continue to suffer.

Apart from the people challenge, there’s also a communication challenge. I went to an event last week where everybody was on their mobile phones at the dining table. They were tweeting or checking email. People are spending too much time on their computer; and I think that as a result, in the future, face-to-face communication may be a problem.

So two of the main challenges I think we will be faced with are tackling the IT skills shortage and communicating without the use of technology.