The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead

It's make-or-break transformation time for CIOs. Those who can only take orders are being ousted. Those who seek to become true strategic business leaders should concentrate on four key areas.

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PERCEPTION: Shape How You Are Viewed

We all know that perception does not always equal reality. But most any CIO's transition from "order taker" to "strategic player" is going to be that much tougher if he and his IT staffers are perceived mostly as geeks who manage the help desk, PC passwords and data centers.

Here's the rub: Before CIOs even start talking about being more strategic, they first have to nail the IT basics. No one is arguing that the bread-and-butter IT deliverables are going away. It almost goes without saying these days. Almost.

Ken Harris, CIO of nutritional product maker Shaklee who also had senior IT roles at the Gap, Nike and PepsiCo, says that the elevated, strategic CIO position today is "a mix of two dramatically different roles." One part is composed of the operational requirements: keeping systems, applications and data centers up; having security and disaster recovery covered; and ensuring subsecond response times on queries, just to name a couple, Harris says. "That is absolutely critical to be done," he says, "but by itself, it's not a sufficient condition for success."

If the perception is that IT can't even keep the trains running on time, then there's no way that CIO will ever be considered a business leader by peers. Perhaps just as critically, CIOs also have to maintain the respect of the IT department while in pursuit of the brass ring from Mahogany Row. Which is no small feat.

Yet even if a CIO does master operations, that doesn't mean a CIO will suddenly be seated next to the CEO in the boardroom. That comes from the second role that a CIO has to play today. Harris calls it the "change agent" role—"finding ways to enable the strategic opportunities within the company." (More on this later.)

To Monte Ford, the CIO of American Airlines, the status of the CIO is related to what he calls the "earned political capital" of the IT leader. In his mind, there are those IT chiefs who work in systems development roles, and that's what they are known for, more or less; and then there are CIOs, he says, whose roles are "integrated into the fabric of the business."

"That's as much a function of the person as it is the view of the senior leadership of the organization—not just the CEO, in particular, but the rest of senior leadership team," Ford says. He contends that some CIOs subjugate themselves to a lesser standing among peers—they let the role define them rather than them defining the role. "A big part of this is how you treat yourself, as well as how you allow others to treat you," Ford says.

So what does that look like? Says Ford: "If the company has some strict financial goals and objectives, and you're ahead of everybody trying to help not only your group but everyone else to fulfill their goals and objectives unsolicited, then you will be viewed differently than if the CFO is chasing you around about 'Can you get your expenses down by 1 percent,' and you're fighting him on it."

When it comes to the perception of IT's strategic worth these days, CIOs will continue to have to overcome plenty of skepticism. Ford's appearance on Fortune's 2010 "Smartest People in Tech" list was gratifying to him. Yet he was the only CIO who made it.

NEXT: Your profile is more than just a spot on the org chart...

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