Taking on IT Leadership in a New World

CIOs must serve internal­—even technical—needs while focusing on external value if they are to be the IT leaders their businesses need

Whether we like it or not, CIOs have a new economy, a new age of computing, a new (and highly demanding) set of technology users, and of course, new paradoxes. Technology is harder than ever, but your customers think it's easy. Your budget has been slashed, but the business wants everything faster. IT is the glue of your company's corporate strategy, but too often, you are the last to know that strategy.

New times call for new approaches. Herewith I submit a few ideas from CIOs for IT leadership.

Be technical. For years, we have been preaching that CIOs should know the business and brandish their MBAs. But they still need to remember the "T" in IT. "Staying current on technology gets harder every day," says Barry Libenson, CIO of Land O'Lakes. "Twenty years ago, the portfolio was smaller and you could get your arms around it more readily. Now the floodgates have opened up, so you personally have an obligation to understand [service-oriented architecture], cloud computing and changes in server technology." But what of CIOs who are hired out of the business (and there are more every day)? If they don't keep up with new technology, "they are doing their companies a disservice," Libenson says. "They don't need to be Java programmers, but they have to have their fingers on emerging technologies."

Embrace the service provider within. "CIOs spend a lot of time thinking about how they can become more important to the organization," says Frank Wander, CIO of Guardian Life Insurance. (For a related story, see "CIO 100: How to Build an IT Culture of Trust.") "But they would be better off accepting their position as a service provider who leads from the rear—it is a critically important role." So, why do so many CIOs clamor for a seat at the table? "CIOs seem to equate success with having an equivalent seat as everyone else, but they are missing the point," says Wander. "Through partnering and collaboration, CIOs can inform the business and help them achieve their goals, but if they try to set business strategy, they will fail. The business owns the business. CIOs can be an important part of the play without being the lead."

Honor the right dollars. According to Ray Barnard, CIO of Fluor Corporation, the most successful CIOs take on the perspective of their board of directors. "This was a challenge for me until I learned to separate the blue dollar from the green dollar," says Barnard, recognizing blue dollars as budgets, chargebacks and internal costs, and green dollars as the revenues and profits that shareholders value. "As a service provider, the CIO needs to avoid the blue-dollar curse where they focus more on internal activities and efforts over the new dollars coming in from the outside."

Re-focus on expectations management. "In this day and age of 'dorm-room development,' when we are delivering products much more quickly, we sometimes move faster than a traditional [software development life cycle] allows us to," says Ken O'Brien, CIO of RR Donnelley. "We need to be sure that expectations management doesn't get lost along the way." O'Brien's advice: Develop a simple vocabulary that focuses your team on setting customer expectations. "Have you affirmed and confirmed the delivery date? Does the customer understand accountabilities as the project moves down the road? Have you set the expectation that the time line may change? A simpler approach to expectations management has really resonated with my organization."

To be sure, the tried-and-true pillars of IT leadership, like communication, relationship building and team building, still stand. But given that our environment has changed (whether we like it or not), it behooves all of us to spend just a little time rethinking the way we approach our work.

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive search firm, and a co-founder of the CIO Executive Council. E-mail her.


This story, "Taking on IT Leadership in a New World" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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