Learning to Understand IT

CIOs who come from the business have discovered the importance of IT and know how to share that new perspective with peers

Today, more companies are hiring CIOs from non-IT functions. These CIOs crossed the fiery pit separating the business from IT, giving them a better perspective on the relationship and how CIOs can improve it.

Brian Bonner joined Texas Instruments in 1981 and held leadership roles in sales, marketing, engineering and product development. He became CIO in 2000. “With my eclectic career, I was qualified for the job, though I didn’t know it at the time,” he says. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

Before and after: When he was VP of marketing, Bonner didn’t expect to be told that a Web project needed IT’s authorization. “I was shocked, since I had committed with our president to do the project,” he says. Now as CIO, he’s found there are legitimate reasons for rigorous approval processes. “Everything is interdependent; adding a capability means that you touch all of these other systems, and you are accountable to the board of directors for security.”

What he changed: To alter the perception of IT as a bureaucracy, Bonner changed the authorization process to an IT readiness process and added a business readiness step to project plans. “Business readiness helps the business garner the hearts and minds of their users to embrace the systems,” he says. “We have become true partners, where IT is ready for the business, and they are ready for IT, rather than our giving them permission.”

Marcia MacLeod joined Williams in 2000 as VP of compensation and benefits. Because of her legal background and five years at Electronic Data Systems, she was asked to lead a $350 million outsourcing deal for Williams. “I spent three years managing the contract and became very involved with IT,” says MacLeod, who accepted the CIO role in 2008.

Before and after: “Before I became CIO, I did not have a grasp on the complexities of IT,” MacLeod says. “Why doesn’t IT speak my language? Why does everything take so long? I was pretty impatient and not a great business partner.” Now MacLeod sees a general misunderstanding across the business about IT’s role. “It’s like the three blind men and the elephant,” she says. “Everyone has their own concept of IT, and IT tries to be everything to everybody.”

What she changed: As CIO, MacLeod quickly realized the importance of communication in defining the IT mission. “We needed to boil down our priorities and communicate a focused IT strategy.” To aid in that effort, MacLeod built a communications function, led by someone with experience in business and IT, to “communicate in simple terms what we are doing that will impact the business.”

In 2010, Sheryl Fikse was general manager at a consultancy and had Southwire, a cable and wire manufacturer, as a client. “I fell in love with the company and was intrigued by how to update their outdated systems but maintain their corporate culture,” says Fikse. So when the CEO asked Fikse to join as CIO, she accepted.

Before and after: “As business people, my colleagues and I would think primarily about the financial aspects of a strategy, not the physical,” says Fikse. “Now that I’m in IT, I need to ask: How does the transaction actually move from system to system? The financial is bounded by the physical, and it is my job to connect the two.”

What she changed: Fikse developed strategies for “letting our business customers know more about what goes on behind the scenes.” She and her team regularly give executives tours, and they are in the midst of putting an IT dashboard on the company’s intranet so anyone can monitor progress on a favorite project. “Just as sunlight dispels darkness,” says Fikse, “visibility dispels the black box.”

Martha Heller is President of Heller Search Associates, a CIO and senior IT executive recruiting firm, and is a co-founder of the CIO Executive Council. Follow Martha on twitter: @marthaheller.

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This story, "Learning to Understand IT" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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