by Ade McCormack


Nov 02, 20115 mins
CareersIT Leadership

I have just returned from MIT Sloan where I have been teaching digital leadership. In many respects it reminded me of Westchester Mansion of X-Men movie fame. This was a fictional location where the X-Men were trained to use their super powers for the good of humanity.

Just in case you are unfamiliar with the X-Men, it was a theme developed by Marvel Comics, whereby some humans possessed the X-gene, which bestowed on them very specific super powers. Such powers included extreme physical strength, accelerated healing and telepathy.

Taking my MBA – X-Men analogy a little further, what if there existed a team of superheroes called the cXo-Men. And what powers might the CIO possess?

Let’s look at the other team members first.

The Chief Finance Officerwould have the power to control the flow of cash. The Chief Marketing Officer would have the power to move minds. The Chief Sales Officer would have the power to convert goods and services into cash. The Chief HR Officer would have the power to make people appear and disappear. Such powers are essential in a modern corporation. And all MBA programmes recognise this.

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If we were to ask these mutant heroes what power they would attribute to their CIO, it is likely they would uniformly state that she has the ability to instigate precipitation on processions. This may seem like a very specialised skill, but many of us are familiar with people who slay our great ideas, burst our bubble or even ‘rain on our parade’.

But CIOs will strongly argue that user ebullience for a new initiative will not necessarily compensate for:

The increased burden on the network.The increased likelihood of cyber threats.The headache of supporting ‘non standard’ technology.

And in each case the CIO may be absolutely correct. However a curt ‘no’ might be interpreted as a power play on the part of the CIO, causing others to think she is not a team player.

There are at least two approaches to addressing this from the CIO’s perspective. The first is to rebrand the role from ‘killer of dreams’ to ‘protector of the enterprise (architecture)’. This is an exercise in rebranding so it may be worth talking to your organisation’s CMO. But given that you probably have some unresolved issues in terms of who owns the corporate website you may need to look elsewhere.

Harvard Business Reviewcontained a useful piece some while back on how to rebrand oneself. Broadly speaking it contained the following steps:

1. Decide how you want the new you to be perceived.

2. Identify the capabilities that will reinforce your new brand.

3. Reinvent your narrative. Redefine your resume highlighting the experiences that support the new brand.

4. Introduce the new you by behaving in a manner that reinforces the new brand.

The last step will be trickiest, particularly if your c-suite colleagues perceive you as the ‘Chief Laptop Fixer’ Officer. I would encourage you to appoint an IT manager. From then on, like the other CxOs, behave like a customer to the IT function rather than first line support.

If you are lacking in talking a good business game then it might be worth considering an MBA, or better still take a sabbatical to spend time working within the user community. Your business credibility will be enhanced by either of these actions.

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Alternatively you can simply take a Taoist approach and go with the flow. Your defence at a later date might be that you believe the ‘customer is always right’. This will reinforce your service-orientation, but is unlikely to win you employee of the year if the network is continually choking and your organisation is facing an Xbox Live scale hacking scandal.

I think all parties need to be involved in the solution. The CIO does need to meet the needs of the users no matter how unpalatable (PDAs last century, tablets today). This requires a robust infrastructure and policies that both weigh up risk and benefits. Perhaps most importantly the decision to say yes to a new initiative lies collectively with the c-suite and should not be left on the shoulders of the CIO.

This takes me back to the concept of digital leadership. C-suite members need to have sufficient expertise on IT matters to be able to evaluate the uses of technology in terms of business benefit, costs and risks. An inability to do that is poor corporate governance. Sacking CIOs may feel therapeutic for the board, but in many cases this is a corporately acceptable way of purging their own guilt. Analysts and shareholders should beware of organisations that seem to have dedicated business processes in place to ‘exit their CIO’.

Business schools need to embrace the concept of digital leadership as a c-suite competence. And future cXo Men need to be chosen not just on possessing the X-gene, but the E(lectronic)-gene as well.

About the author: Ade McCormack is a writer, speaker and adviser on digital leadership (