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.

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The potential benefits to the CIO—and the company—can't be denied. Dual-role CIOs stay around longer, says Forrester's Cameron. "There's a much more obvious connection from them to the business because they're more instrumental in driving improvements in the company."

Indeed, CIOs who have taken on additional business are better positioned to deliver improved processes and business results. "I am both the customer and provider of a solution. There are people on my team that are using technology to generate revenue, and there are people on my team who are delivering technology," says Gibson. "Conflict [between IT and the business] has not gone away, but it's isolated at my level."

Best Western is currently rolling out ITIL best practices, for example. There's a natural tendency within the business to want to introduce new technology features and functions fast and furiously, without much consideration of what that can do to the stability of the IT environment. But Gibson has been able to slow things down and introduce ITIL-inspired change-management processes that empower the technology team to delay production changes if they represent a significant risk to current capabilities. "Since, in some cases, I'm both the senior user and the leader of the technology team, direct reports from both sides are empowered to work together," says Gibson. "We're able to make a lot more headway in making those processes most effective."

At Sloan Valve, Coleman's triple-threat role as CIO, and, since 2004, chief process officer and leader of corporate strategic planning, has eliminated a lot of bureaucratic back-and-forth between departments. "I sit down once a month with functions to talk about priorities," says Coleman. "Most big projects are driven by the strategic plan. There's nearly complete alignment, although I don't care for that word. There's clarity."

Be Careful What You Wish For

Coleman spends half his time on IT issues, half on process management and improvement, "and 20 percent of my time on strategy. That's 120 percent," he says with a hearty chuckle.

Time management is critical for a CIO who takes on roles beyond IT. And it's not always a laughing matter. "The downside is that it might kill me," says Drouin. He underestimated the additional workload. "And I don't even feel like I am fully engaged in the new job yet. I am certainly not doing justice to my new team at this point in providing leadership and direction. I am out of my comfort zone. I simply don't have the same breadth or depth of experience with logistics that I do with IT, which adds to the stress level."

Drouin is worried that as he gets the new logistics group up and running, he could easily let his CIO self slide. From conversations with peers who have juggled multiple roles, "it seemed that the IT role kind of got pushed to the back," Drouin says. "I do not want that to happen to me. I love the CIO role, both what it is now and what it is becoming. I like that the CIO role is becoming very business-process focused. CIOs are engaging with their peers at a different level, looking for solutions to business problems and ways to improve business process."

For CIOs taking on additional roles, delegation is paramount. "While making adjustments to be seen to be successful in a new role, you definitely have to burn the candle at both ends for a while," says Gordon of Harvey Nash. "But generally, this is an opportunity to develop a team around you."

Best Western's Gibson had to put most of his attention on IT, rather than on distribution, when he started his job. Having more than one role meant Gibson had to appoint managers who could make critical IT decisions, as well as establish processes that did not require his daily oversight. Now, he relies on his direct reports to deal with most tactical, and even strategic, challenges without him. "You have to have a predisposition for empowering your direct reports and giving them the freedom to deal with things," he says.

Overcoming Resistance

Most CIOs who take on another role don't feel diminished by it. But for members of their staff, it can take time to adjust to the new reality. "It was confusing for my team initially," says Gibson. "But now I think they feel like they're coequal members of my larger team. In this role, I can do a better job of having the business make clear what they want to pursue with technology; I can actually make the lives of IT people a little better."

Drouin says the IT group at TRW has been supportive of his add-on role. "Generally, they have seen it as strong support from the top that we have made significant progress as an organization."

Individuals on the business side can take longer to come around. When Coleman arrived at Sloan Valve, he inherited an IT role previously filled by a dictatorial personality: "That had created a lot of resentment, so I had to be careful about coming across as all-knowing." When he decided to take on additional responsibility outside of IT, he knew he had to tread even more gingerly. "In the early stages, a lot of people wondered what my real agenda was. They assumed I wanted to take over their department or become the next president of the company," Coleman recalls. Coleman made it clear he had "zero interest" in running the show.

"Clearly there can be resentment if somebody feels they have been passed over for a role and the CIO does not have the requisite 'business credentials,'" says Gordon. "It may be a misunderstanding of the CIO role that causes people to be on guard, not considering IT to be 'part of the business.'" Being seen by those in the business as more than "just" the CIO takes time. When Michael Hites was CIO and vice president of planning and IT with New Mexico State University, "everyone from the 'past' [would still ask] me about the latest BlackBerry or how to fix their website," he says. "It's my responsibility to be known as 'the strategic planning guy,' not theirs. My actions need to clearly show that." Hites, who began a new job in March with the much larger University of Illinois system as associate vice president of administrative IT services for the university administration, which includes Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, Springfield and Global Campus, says his experience outside of IT helped him get the job.

A CIO-Plus Future?

Gibson, whose CIO-plus role at Best Western marks his third C-level position, started out the way most CIOs used to—as a programmer. "But the longer I worked in businesses, the further and further I moved away from the nuts and bolts of technology," he says. Gibson sees his position as head of IT, distribution and business strategy as just another advancement in his evolution. "It's a natural progression," he says. "People who find themselves in the business of being successful CIOs today are people who would be successful in other areas of the business outside of technology."

Perhaps the majority of IT leaders fall into that category. But not everyone's game for tackling the CIO role and something else, notes Cameron. The increase in CIOs doing double or triple duty in the business does have some in the IT community wondering—or worrying—about what this means for the standalone CIO role.

"I do actually think the CIO role should be a discrete role, one that should be important enough to warrant a dedicated, senior executive position in any company," admits Drouin of TRW. He says the CIO role at TRW is big enough to keep one person busy. "On the other hand, I appreciate the confidence my boss had in giving me a role that is really core to our operations. This was a very personal decision, more about my own development and readiness to take on an additional challenge than it was about my boss feeling a need to expand the CIO role."

The CEO of Sloan Valve recently asked CIO and CPO Coleman if he wanted to drop the CIO part of his title altogether. "My CEO would tell you, IT is becoming the process management department. The CIO is becoming CPO, period," says Coleman. But Coleman plans on keeping the CIO moniker for now.

JDSU's Etterman ultimately gave up straddling the CAO and CIO roles. Earlier this year he hired someone to take over his IT role full-time. "At a certain point, you look around and say, this is really stupid," says Etterman. "The CIO role is big enough. You can figure out how to do a couple more things well. You can't do much more without compromising the value you're delivering to the IT organization." JDSU's CEO and board members reluctantly agreed. "There just wasn't enough of me to go around," says now executive vice president and CAO-only Etterman.

Forrester's Cameron, for one, doesn't think the CIO title is endangered. "The CIO title sticks," he says. "There will always have to be someone in charge of technology."

At Best Western, Gibson plans to keep the CIO title—and the other two. "There's no danger I will turn them over to someone else anytime soon," he says. "On the other hand, I don't know that I'm so emotionally invested that I would be reluctant to do that in the future. I want to be valuable to this organization in a way that works for this organization."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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