How CIOs Can Benefit From Having Dual Roles

More CIOs are being asked to take on responsibilities outside of IT. And it's not just the business that benefits. Expanding your job description can be good for your career, too—provided you master the politics and rethink how you run IT.

Among the entire management team at Best Western International, Scott Gibson has the longest title.

Sure, there's a tendency toward wordiness when it comes to describing positions at the hotelier. Look at the nameplate on Ric Leutwyler's door: Senior Vice President of Brand Quality and Member Service.

But the extra ink required to print Gibson's latest batch of business cards goes beyond verbosity. The 47-year-old technology executive, who joined the company in 2005 as CIO and senior vice president of distribution, last summer added a third title: senior vice president of strategic services. That means Gibson heads up the IT organization and the call center operations team, where he oversees all methods of distribution from call centers to travel agents to online travel sites, and he is in charge of corporate strategic planning.

(For the record, that makes him CIO and Senior Vice President, Distribution and Strategic Services.)

While that drawn-out descriptor may make him unique among his Best Western peers, Gibson's hardly singular when judged against the CIO cohort. More than half of CIOs report having responsibilities outside of IT, according to a survey of 1,500 CIOs by Gartner Executive Programs. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of IT leaders are accepting official positions that extend beyond the traditional technology function. "We've seen enough of it going on that we can say it really is a trend," says Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester Research.

It's what Martha Heller, managing director of the IT leadership practice at executive search firm ZRG, calls the "CIO-and" phenomenon. The new CIO-plus roles are more substantial than hyphenate titles of old like CIO and vice president of e-business. Today, notes Heller (who is also a CIO columnist), "the add-on titles are typically more strategic,enterprisewide and often customer-facing."

That seems like good news. CIOs have been so successful that their bosses are betting they'll add value outside of IT—an affirmation, if there ever was one, of the business value of an IT leader. And CIOs in these magnified roles are better positioned to deliver improved processes and business results than if they held only the technology position. "CIOs have a greater ability to influence their firms' direction—process, strategy, business models—when they have more of a role on the business side," says Cameron.

But a hybrid role has its downside. It requires infinitely more from the IT leader—and the IT staff, who have to take on more responsibility as their bosses' workload compounds. If you think you've got your hands full with just IT, well, forget it. What's more, having a dual role can breed resentment outside IT as CIOs encroach on others' turf. Yet some experts say these hybrid roles are a necessary outgrowth of the increasingly business-focused CIO role. "The natural evolution is to have the topmost role of the senior technology executive become a general management role, not a technology role," says Cameron. "As a result, it is normal for [today's] CIO to pick up additional responsibilities that require the same style of general management discipline."

But these CIO-"and" roles have some wondering what will become of the standalone chief information officer role. "The CIO is going to be more of a process innovation and business transformation agent who understands how to apply technology to support strategic initiatives," says Sam Gordon, CIO practice director at Harvey Nash Executive Search. "I think it's unlikely that the CIO role as we know it will exist in 10 to 15 years' time."

Hyphenates Are Hot Again

There is precedent for the CIO-plus role. In the 1990s, you couldn't throw a rock in IT leadership circles without hitting someone with e-commerce-this or digital-that tacked on to his title. But the trend subsided when the dotcom bubble burst. Other title enhancements have tended to be industry-specific or related to how a particular company uses IT. In software companies, there's the ever-present CIO-CTO hyphenate. Manufacturing companies have been known to add supply chain duties to the CIO position.

But the expanded CIO role of today, say experts, is different. IT executives are taking on corporate strategy, heading up revenue-producing business units, and taking on roles as varied as logistics and international expansion. According to the 2007/2008 CIO Survey by Harvey Nash USA, 44 percent of respondents reported having responsibilities outside of IT. "The kind of stuff CIOs are good at—consistency, predictability, an organized approach to problem solving—can be a unique skill set in many companies," says Cameron. "IT is one of the only departments that spans the enterprise, which puts the CIO in an excellent position to drive value in other areas." Indeed, CIOs who have worked hard to prove the importance of IT have made that case so well that their bosses are beginning to take advantage of their expertise.

"We have worked hard to demystify IT and be seen as integral to the business. We've learned to think and act and speak 'business first,'" says Joe Drouin, VP and CIO of TRW Automotive, who recently took on additional responsibility for global logistics. "This is all being recognized by senior executives who say, 'This person is more than a technologist. He or she knows my business as well as anyone else, if not better. What else could I have him or her do for me?'"

The phenomenon is familiar to Al Etterman. When he took a job at software company OpenWave in 2002, he recounts, "I started as CIO, but I picked up a couple of other pieces along the way." He ended up in charge of a corporate program office, real estate and facilities. "I kind of forgot to duck," he says, half-joking. When JDS Uniphase (JDSU), a Milpitas, Calif.-based manufacturer of communications test and measurement solutions and optical products, hired Etterman in 2004, the new job encompassed not only the CIO role but also the position of SVP of customer advocacy. He added chief administrative officer to his portfolio a year later.

Most of the time, additional titles are bestowed after success with an IT initiative. "It almost happens through osmosis. That initiative becomes a stepping-stone to a bigger leadership role," says Gordon of Harvey Nash.

When Tom Coleman became CIO of plumbing products manufacturer Sloan Valve Company in 2000, he was concerned that the company wasn't getting enough out of its SAP software. "I had experience with business process reengineering so I started talking to my boss, the CEO, about the fact that unless the software were connected to business pro­cess improvement, the system was worthless," Coleman recalls. Long story short, business process improvement became one of the top corporate initiatives. Coleman became, in addition to CIO, the chief process officer (CPO).

Other times, however, an expanded role comes straight from left field. TRW's Drouin had discussed the idea of added responsibility with his boss. "I was expecting something that might be more intuitively linked to IT," he says. Like running TRW's continuous improvement organization or its shared services centers. At an offsite last year, Drouin suggested to the COO that the company form a task force to reduce inventory, outlining plans for the team and even offering up a few IT people to contribute. To Drouin's delight, the COO loved the idea. But to his surprise, the COO asked him to create and run a new global logistics organization. The focus of the new job: Get a handle on inventory and materials management, but also oversee transportation, freight, distribution, warehousing and customs.

It was pretty far afield from any additional role Drouin had pictured himself taking on, but he was game. For one thing, "I don't think I could have comfortably declined," says Drouin. "My boss and I discussed that I was ready for a new challenge." Besides, says Drouin, the add-on role opens up a world of possibilities careerwise. "Having this additional, non-IT responsibility could lead my career in a different direction than I had always assumed—into a more general management or operations-management leadership role. It could be a good thing."

Ready for the Extra Responsibility? Or Just Willing?

For all the talk about the unique qualities a CIO can bring to an additional enterprise role, IT isn't the only function that can offer its expertise more broadly. Finance, for example, has an impact on every part of the business, too. Yet it's rare to see the CFO tackling anything other than his executive fiduciary responsibilities.

It may be that CIOs—still viewed by some as the ugly stepchildren of the C suite—remain eager to prove their worth and are more willing to take on additional duties. Says Harvey Nash's Gordon: "IT leaders see [these expanded roles] as a way to be seen as a true businessperson."

The danger is that the CIO could end up taking on tasks that no one else wants to do. "The CIO can end up doing strategic jobs that are core to business success and dependent on IT, or the CIO may get invited to do onerous tasks that they wouldn't want to put on their resume," says Forrester's Cameron. When asked if CIOs who take on extra roles are being exploited, JDSU's Etterman is matter-of-fact: "You probably are being taken advantage of." But Etterman, who describes himself as a "fixer," doesn't mind as long as it's an area where he can add something to the role and take something new from it for himself.

If CIOs are being used by the corporation when being tasked with non-IT roles, it's certainly with their consent. "It's in my interest to make myself valuable to this organization," says Gibson of Best Western. "I saw a hole in the strategic services area and the difficulty the company had filling it. I had a strong point of view about what we should do with strategy. So I volunteered to take it on. I can make a difference and make myself more valuable." For Gibson, who says he doesn't make decisions on a "good for my career/bad for my career" basis, the added roles have been a boon. "Having multiple roles has made this job more interesting than jobs I've had before. It's been good for me." But, says Cameron, "most CIOs do consider it a good career move, because most people believe that the bigger the sphere of influence, the greater the success of the individual."

CIOs are likely to view being tapped for additional responsibility as a vote of confidence. "In this case, my boss saw an opportunity to advance the organization by creating a new function, and he had the confidence in me to lead it and deliver results," says TRW's Drouin. "He didn't have to make either of those choices." Indeed, these additional responsibilities confirm how far CIOs have come. "[These roles] validate IT as being a true strategic enabler rather than a support function," says Gordon of Harvey Nash.

Still, it's not a decision to be made flippantly. (See "6 Questions CIOs Should Ask Before Adding to Their Job Description") "If someone does make the move [to take on additional business roles] and it doesn't work out, it can be bad for your reputation, " says Gordon. That caused Best Western's Gibson to toss and turn more than a few nights before adding a third responsibility. "I know a couple of CIOs who have evolved into COO and CEO roles, so I guess it was clear to me that it was possible to succeed outside of technology," says Gibson. But he had never worked outside of IT. "I probably came into it with more trepidation than anyone else. Part of me was saying, OK, this is really different. Why do you want to do this? Why does Best Western think I can do this?'"

CIOs can—and should—say no to opportunities that don't work for them. For one thing, CIOs who are still working to improve the technology group will only hurt themselves—and the business—by donning another business hat, says Cameron. "If a CIO has expanded responsibilities but doesn't manage IT well, that CIO is less likely to be in a better position to deliver improved processes and business results," adds Cameron.

A "no" needn't been seen as a negative. "If the role doesn't have the right sponsorship in the company or does not add value to your career, why take it?" says Gordon, who's seen CIOs turn down additional roles they didn't feel were strategic or would be too much of a distraction to the IT role. "If I wasn't up for the broader responsibility, I would have had to say no," says Gibson.

The Upside of Multiple Roles

For Gibson, excitement ultimately outweighed apprehension. His second role of vice president of distribution put him in charge of a revenue stream. "The job of IT person gives you a lot of opportunity to wreck revenue, but this would give the chance to add to revenue," says Gibson. "Having more of a business portfolio was more attractive because it seemed more challenging. I'm establishing business relationships with partners, defining the business terms, as well as delivering the technology to bring more revenue."

The unknowns of an extra-IT role can be a thrill. "It's fun. It's interesting. It's different every hour of the day," says JDSU's Etterman. "I can go from a real estate negotiations meeting to an Oracle conversation about SOA and Web 2.0 to compensation discussions to a board meeting."

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