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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PROFILE: Craft More Than Your Org Chart Slot

A decade ago, it was easy to tell the type of profile a CIO had within a given company: Was the CIO listed among other execs on the "Senior Management" page on the corporate website? Though it's rare not to see the CIO's photo on that webpage today, it doesn't mean that the CIO's stature among peers is that elevated. Or secure.

One reason CIOs have struggled: CEOs require that their CIOs should innately be both operationally and strategically sound, Shaklee's Harris points out. That combined skillset is highly sought-after yet not easy to come by.

In a June blog post, Patrick Gray, the president of IT consulting firm Prevoyance Group, writes that the CIO role continues "to suffer from a multiple personality disorder of sorts." At one moment, Gray says, CIOs must understand and capably discuss the strategic direction of their company and, seconds later, consider a complex technical problem with costly ramifications.

"Some CIO job advertisements laughably demonstrate this dual role, in the same sentence asking for a 'strategic partner' and 'extensive Cobol knowledge,'" Gray writes. "It is as if the CFO was called on to make journal entries after discussing the latest M&A activity, or the COO running down to the shop floor to spend a few hours on the drill press after pondering a complex rethink of the global supply chain."

CEOs want what they want, of course. And if they want a CIO who can discuss brand positioning and blade servers in the same breath, then so be it. "I think most CXOs have a vision of what a change agent can do, but there's a lot of them who don't really know how to help make that happen or find the right person to make that happen," Harris says. "That's one of the big challenges that CIOs face: To try to educate the executive committee, CEO and CXOs on how a CIO truly becomes successful and becomes that person that they want the CIO to be: that change agent. By and large, CIOs won't get there by themselves."

Lundberg concurs with Harris's assertion. "Part of it is: Does the CIO have the right combination of skills, mindset and abilities?" she says. "And part of it is: Is the rest of the organization there as well?"

According to Lundberg, there are many leading companies that are knowledgeable of and adept at using technology to the fullest. Inside those companies, CIOs can flourish. "But at the majority of companies—even the ones with executives who understand that this is the future and where value will come from—they don't have all the pieces in place yet to do that well," she says.

Of course, there's been a limitless amount of discussion around CIO reporting relationships—as in, can a CIO be a strategic leader if she doesn't report to the CEO, but into, say, the CFO? Some CIOs are steadfast in that to be truly strategic they have to report into the CEO. Others, such as SuperValu's Shurts, disagree. "Reporting to the CEO helps, but it's not required," he says.

At his previous job, Shurts reported to the CFO at Cadbury. "But I stayed relevant to the business," he says. How? "It comes from approach: Do I approach my job from an information and technology approach? Or from a business approach? To me, that makes all difference." (At SuperValu, Shurts reports into CEO Craig Herkert.)

The IT agenda, Shurts says, must flow from business strategy and need. "I'm going to be spending a lot of time with the head of marketing, CFO, the head of supply chain, and the CEO and all their direct reports working through issues and figuring out what role IT role plays in helping delivering it," he says. "The role of a CIO today and tomorrow is always going to begin from the business and then work back into the technology issues."

NEXT: If you wait to be asked, it may be too late for you...

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