by Martha Heller

CIO Career Coach: Courage to be an enterprise leader

Jul 19, 2017
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It's time for 'how' CIOs to become 'what' CIOsu2014to help decide what the company's strategy should be, not just how to implement it

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Welcome back to “CIO Career Coach,” a video series I created with and This season, we’re discussing the competencies required of CIOs to be successful in the new era of IT. 

The CIO competency we are talking about today’s is the courage to become an enterprise leader. 

Scott McKay, CIO of Genworth Financial, once shared a great metaphor with me about corporate boardrooms. He said, “In the boardroom, there are chairs around the table and there are chairs along the walls. The chairs around the table are occupied by the “what” executives. They decide “what” the company’s strategy should be and “what” the company should be spending its money on. 

“The people in the chairs along the walls are the “how” executives. They say, ‘OK, great, that’s the business strategy. Here is how we are going to get it done.’” 

Traditionally, IT has supported or enabled business strategy, so CIOs have sat squarely in the “how” chairs along the wall. But in the digital era, when IT now informs, or even defines, business strategy, it is time for CIOs to switch chairs—to become “what” CIOs. 

Time to become a ‘what’ CIO

The CIO’s unique perspective stems from his or her ability to see processes, problems and opportunities end to end across the company. The CIO’s unique perspective is to look across the company and see what the company is good at and where it needs improvement. The “what” of the CIO is to be the company’s competitive capabilities champion.

But here’s the rub: Looking across silos for opportunities to improve enterprise capabilities is one thing; creating a vision for how to capitalize on those opportunities is another. And communicating that vision effectively is harder still. But the real work is in deciding to stick your neck out in the first place. 

To quote Scott McKay again: “For years, IT leaders have been taught always to have a business sponsor. CIOs have had it easy because they have not had to take ownership of anything. Ownership takes more personal risk than enablement.” 

Another term I use to describe this new CIO competency is “courage.” Watch this video to see how McKay, as well as CIOs from Vanguard, Dr. Pepper-Snapple, and Intel have mustered the courage to become “what” CIOs.