What CEOs Expect from CIOs

CEOs want CIOs who know their industries, think like customers and can envision new business opportunities.

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“The skill sets are still evolving to catch up to the need,” notes Chris Patrick, partner in charge of the global CIO practice for executive recruiter Egon Zehnder International. (Related: "Want to Be a CIO? Be Prepared to Answer These Questions") Particularly tough to find among CIOs are external-facing competencies: knowing a company’s market, understanding customers, identifying new revenue opportunities and having a grasp of business, not just IT, strategy. “IT leaders are learning by interacting with business peers in a much more strategic way, as opposed to being suppliers of technology.”

Learning these skills takes time, however. For now, Patrick thinks, the demand for such IT leaders will outstrip the supply. (Egon Zehnder and the Council have developed a model called “ Journey to the Future-State CIO” to help IT leaders earn their business strategy bona fides. For more information, go to council.cio.com/futurestate).

Meanwhile, some CEOs are taking time to work with IT execs as coaches and confidants. Bayer’s Babe mentors senior IT managers with strong potential. He recounts that one individual he mentored had a strong intellect but a very logical worldview, so much so that any idea that wasn’t logical carried no weight with him and he would dismiss it. “I helped him to see that at the executive level, most of what you deal with is political, not logical, and you have to learn to work with that.”

Several CEOs interviewed for this story stress the need to lend visible support to their CIOs in order to build up the IT leaders’ credibility and help them deal with their toughest constituents—business-unit and function heads who are narrowly focused on their own areas and might not see the bigger corporate picture. MillerCoors’ Kiely coaches his CIO Wasielewski on where the land mines are as she decides how to best blend the different business cultures of former rivals Miller and Coors into a single harmonious brew.

“I give her feedback on what I’ve heard from the organization and where the squeaky wheels are,” Kiely says. “I coach her on how to effectively impact a particular player or a particular department.” Kiely also has offered to “fly cover” to protect the IT team during particularly complex projects. He’ll sit in with Wasielewski’s team as they describe their implementation challenges and how they plan to overcome them, and then he will convey these themes to the business units. “I’ll show support and an understanding of the issues,” says Kiely. The CEO’s endorsement, and the interpretation he offers of IT’s plan as the ultimate IT-business liaison, effectively warms up potentially frosty constituents.

For Purdue’s Córdova, empowerment and inclusion are her preferred strategies for ensuring the CIO contributes strategically. Her CIO, McCartney, is a member of her “cabinet,” made up of 20 administrative officers; they implement the university’s strategic plan. Córdova has also placed McCartney in positions that transcend technology and the IT department. For example, as the executive in charge of the university’s research computing infrastructure, he is one of three university executives who make presentations to the board about academic research, which means he advocates for one of Purdue’s most significant growth streams.

Having the CIO represent the CEO to the public is another way to boost an IT leader’s business credibility and reputation. Bayer’s Babe asks Claudio Abreu, President and CEO of Business and Technology Services, to represent him at industry and civic events, including at a television panel during the 2009 G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, in which Abreu addressed how that city—home to Bayer’s headquarters—contributes to the global economy.

“Claudio is someone I fully trust to sit in for me on most anything,” Babe says. “For an interview about our company or our role in this region, Claudio is very capable of doing that. If it were something very specific on a deep-dive industry topic, I might have to prep him a bit, but I feel he could handle it well.” These opportunities to be visible are a chance to practice and publicly demonstrate a broader grasp of business forces in front of internal and industry constituents.

What all these coaching and positioning efforts have in common is that they show an effort by CEOs to embrace and ensure the success of the strategy-oriented CIO. Although the vast majority of his Fortune 500 CEO clients state a critical need for a strategic IT leader, Egon Zehnder’s Patrick knows the proof is in their actions. CEOs have to walk their talk.

“Make the CIO your partner and treat him like a partner,” AXA’s Condron advises fellow CEOs. Engaging in a one-to-one working relationship builds the CIO’s confidence, and it sends a message that the CEO truly sees the role as strategically important. “Everybody then knows the CIO has the eyes and ears of the CEO,” Condron notes. “He is my partner, but he’s not just my partner. He’s the partner of his peers who sit at the table with him. He has our total respect, and that’s why it works.”

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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