by Martha Heller

Top Ten Competencies of the Modern CIO

Jun 11, 20147 mins
CareersCIOEnterprise Architecture

A work in progress

Top 10 CIO Competencies
These days, I am in hot pursuit of the “Top Ten Competencies of the Modern CIO.” This is not only to commemorate the retirement of my beloved David Letterman, but also to provide some guidelines to up-and-comers who are fashioning their IT leadership careers – and to my team of recruiters in identifying rock stars in the CIO candidate pool.

In previous posts, I have begun this effort, and I continue it here. Warning:  I am trying hard to stay away from tried and true attributes like “leadership” and “business acumen” and aim for something a little more nuanced. So bear with me….

10. The Ability to Make the Complex Simple:  Let’s face it.  Technology is complicated.  Once in a while, I find myself in a room of enterprise architects.  With nary a “business” counterpart in sight, these architects allow themselves to engage in the most technical of conversations, and I – who have been surrounded by IT leaders for years and years – am still astounded by how complicated technology actually is.   Business leaders really have no conception of the level of complexity that CIOs and their teams are dealing with.

And that is how it should be.  The most successful CIOs can take their deep, deep technology knowledge, and their most complex architectural challenges, and through metaphors and finance and metrics and charm, break technology down into its most basic parts. They can figure out how their audience can best consume the most relevant technical information, and make it meaningful for them. 

9. The Courage to Operationalize Your Horizontal View:  Wolfgang Richter, PWC’s CIO, told me that companies tend to have three layers:  The strategy layer contains decisions about products and markets, the operating layer includes the models, processes and structures to execute on the strategy layer, and the systems layer automates and makes efficient the operating layer.  Simple enough.

Senior executives love the strategy layer, but the operating layer?  Not so much. It’s just so tough to create change there. So, they skip that pesky operating layer and go straight to systems, where they ask the CIO to develop, say, an integrated data strategy, consolidated web presence, and global finance system, before anyone has mentioned these changes to the cranky P&L leaders.

This happens all the time.  The challenge for the CIO is to climb on over to the operating layer to create change, so that the IT team can deliver on the systems layer.  (After all, master data management is more political than technical.) The skill?  Chutzpa or cojones or courage – or whatever you want to call the characteristic that allows CIOs to resist asking their business partners, “How can IT help? Where’s your pain? How can we improve our service to you?” but instead give them tough love and leadership at the operational level.

The fact is, CIOs – more than any other executive– can see across the enterprise.  While most executives are focused, appropriately, on their vertical slice of the business, CIOs uniquely have a horizontal view. Successful CIOs have the courage to put that horizontal view into action.

8. The Engineering Expertise to Dismantle the Iceberg: By now, you may have heard me mention the iceberg.  But for those of you who have something better to do than read my every word, the iceberg is your infrastructure.  The tip of the iceberg, that 10 or 20 percent of your IT portfolio, is visible to everyone.  It is gleaming in the sun and holds within it the promise of mobility and predictive analytics and integrated data, and all of the wonderful things that modern businesses need to compete.  But lurking below sea level is a mass of old hardware, bolted on systems, unsupported applications, complexity, insecurity, cost and bloat.

As CIO, you alone among the executive committee can see below sea level.  You see the heavy, antiquated iceberg.  You know that with every year that passes, as you pander to the tip of the iceberg, you add to the heavy bottom until it submerges the whole shebang.

Yes, the iceberg , at one level, is a financial conundrum and as CIO, you need to be able to finance your way out of it. But equally as important (if not more so) are your infrastructure engineering muscles.  That brilliant CTO on your team who is thinking about the “software of infrastructure” and automated capacity planning and innovation in network operations is the key. That CTO will help you dismantle the iceberg and deliver on the promise of emerging capabilities in customer engagement.

Sure, being a CIO is about being a business person, but let’s not forget that beneath all of those business strategies, customers, colleagues and goals lurks real metal.  Forget about the metal, and it will rust until the building collapses. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist just one more metaphor!)

7. Storytelling.  Clearly, I love metaphors, and I am not alone. A good metaphor — that beautiful common ground where two parties with different backgrounds can move closer to a shared understanding of something abstract – will take you far.  CIOs have so much to explain these days: why security, while producing no ROI, should be a company’s highest priority; why the infrastructure needs care and feeding too; why total cost of ownership is a real thing; why we cannot forget about depreciation. 

A CIO’s best tool for creating influence or change or standards or awareness is storytelling.  Can you tell the story of technology in a way that informs, captivates (and even delights?) your audience?  That’s the nut to crack for most CIOs.

6. Building Alliances. We all talk about relationship building. We have business relationship managers, we hire for relationship building skills, and we value the relationships we have across the enterprise.  But at a conference recently, I heard a CIO talk not about relationships, but about alliances.  Alliances, agreements between two or more parties in pursuit of a common goal, is much more accurate way to describe what CIOs need to develop. (Clearly, I am a student of Survivor, the mother of all reality shows, where alliances are what keep you on the island.)

When the CMO pushes for a new database marketing tool, and you know that you are already supporting 16 of them, view this as an alliance opportunity.  If you can explain to the CMO the downside of a new tool in light of your bevy of fragmented customer databases, you have a chance to educate the CMO on a topic of importance to her.  You have an opportunity to explain the iceberg and get her support in dismantling it.

Hey, it is great that you know the CFO’s family and you have beers after work with the head of sales. Relationships matter too.  But by looking across your business, identifying the three most respected leaders, and working specifically with them on an IT program of great importance to them, you will build alliances and support for the larger IT strategy that these individual investments support.

5. Be a competitor in the Talent Hunger Games. How much do I need to say on this topic?  Computer science enrollments are at an all-time low. Your baby-boomers are retiring and taking their legacy knowledge with them. Silicon Valley is hot again and start-ups are fun.  The marketing organization is hiring technology people, too, and your compensation budget is not going up. Is your recruiting organization positioned to win this latest war on talent? Are you making the most of the talent that you have?  Are you developing “blended executives,” leaders with a mix of technology and business skills?  

Whether through a promise of advancement, better pay, or the opportunity to make a difference; whether through partnerships with universities, or formal programs that rotate your leaders through IT  towers and through “the business.” Whether through mentorship or training or creating a compelling corporate culture, you need to compete in the talent wars, to win.

But what about items 4 through 1, you ask?  You promised us ten!  David Letterman, with his Top Ten lists, never let us hanging!  Ah yes, but we live in the era of the blogosphere where partially finished work is ripe for publishing.  Be patient!  I’ll be back!