by Patricia Wallington

Leadership: Why CIOs Need to Partner With Other C-Suite Execs

Aug 01, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

TECHNOLOGY’S PERVASIVENESS in the corporate landscape is unparalleled: It is a huge consumer of resources, both people and capital; it is the operational platform that drives the day-to-day business; and it holds the opportunities for the future. Thus, technology is inextricably linked to both the current and future success of most companies. As a result, technology leadership is merging with strategic and financial leadership, and the roles of the CEO, COO, CIO and CFO?among others?are being called into a partnership for the future. It’s known as a CXO partnership, and it requires new skills in today’s leaders.

What is a CXO partnership? First, understand that it is not about organizational structure. The CXO partnership is an informal one?a coalition and community of interest. It is built on relationships, trust, knowledge and the need to integrate that knowledge to optimize decision making in your company.

Which “O”s should participate in the CXO coalition? That depends. There are so many today: In addition to the well-worn CEO, CFO and COO, we now have CTOs (technology), CMOs (marketing), CCOs (customer advocate), CKOs (knowledge), CIOs (investment) and CIOs (information), just to name a few. It would be easy to get so hung up on the inclusion and exclusion decisions that you lose focus on what your objective really is. This is a flexible model. The nature of your business will drive the membership of the partnership. It can even vary depending on the decision. The CXO partnership is really just a blanket term for a collaborative form of leadership.

Here’s an example. Xerox’s outsourcing strategy started with a proposal from me (then CIO) to the division presidents. They recognized the strategic effect of this decision and recommended I move it to the CEO level. The CFO and CEO provided valuable support, counsel, perspective and direction as we tangled with the myriad issues inherent in this decision. We treated it the way you would a $2 billion to $3 billion acquisition or divestiture. The presidents provided us with an understanding of influences on business and customers. As the moment of decision neared, the CEO and CFO met with their counterparts from the bidding companies.

My favorite story from that period involves asking the executives to resist vendor attempts to bypass the selection process. We had such great cooperation that I received a phone call from one of the executives requesting permission to have dinner with a friend from one of the bidding companies. The executive gave me three options: a) decline, b) accept and invite me along, or c) accept and then take along a list of our issues. Can’t ask for better than that!

The outsourcing decision was a joint effort based on a collaborative process that integrated multiple factors: effects on customers, employee considerations, technology support capability, potential partnership benefits and financial rewards. No one called us a CXO partnership, but that was what it was.

Build It Right

What can you do if you are not already in such an environment? A CXO partnership won’t come knocking on your door, so you’ll need to create it yourself. Often you can build it around a significant event that warrants the active participation of the CEO or an ongoing process like investment prioritization. As you get going, make sure you

Invite the willing. It isn’t as important to have an ideal mix of participants as it is to start the collaboration; so engage those you are able to reach. Success will increase the participation.

Facilitate and integrate. Your role is to bring people together to start the dialogue and bring information together to reach the decision.

Think big. Although you bring technology knowledge to the table, it is the executive thought process that must prevail. At Xerox we referred to that as “wearing your corporate hat.” Once, we even distributed hats with a big red X on them.

Stay together. Collaboration is the desired mode, whether in joint problem solving or conflict resolution. This requires open and direct communication and explicit sharing of knowledge. For example, always make sure your CFO knows your numbers and the story behind them, formally or informally. This is almost a prerequisite for an open-minded setting.

Perform a balancing act. Balance advocacy for your own position with the understanding of others’ perceptions and interests. At Xerox, it would have been easier to strike a deal with only financial considerations, but we had our employees’ interests to consider as well as our customers’. Balancing those seemingly competing objectives was important to our success.

Set shared goals. Jointly develop objective metrics or milestones. This will help develop shared ownership of the outcome.

Avoid Potential Pitfalls

A CXO partnership can be a powerful way to get things done. As with any group effort, however, it’s important to anticipate and avert potential problems by making sure you

Involve everyone. A collaborative environment involves power sharing. For some this feels like a loss of control, with all the attendant concerns. Be attuned to those who are withdrawn from the process and work to draw them in. Without them something will be lost.

Stay focused. While espousing a collaborative intent, some participants may still exhibit parochial or defensive postures. This may be especially true as you get closer to reaching a decision. Don’t let this derail your effort. Try to elicit the basic concern and strive for a solution that accommodates it.

Think beyond IT. The best IT answer is not always the right one for the company. There will be times when you feel that the best technology direction has not been pursued. In such cases letting go is a strength, not a weakness?provided you have openly shared the necessary information and everyone understands the implications. It is through integrating the perspectives that the truly best answer is realized. Not best for technology, not best for finance, not best for a single function or business but the right mix of those components.

Reap the Rewards

The outcome of a successful collaboration is a shared ownership of the results. At Xerox, the intense involvement of the senior executives ensured the shared ownership of the outsourcing decision. Thus, even when we hit some rough spots, there was no finger-pointing. We avoided the classic shared-risk formula, “If it works, it’s mine; if it fails, it’s yours.”

Meanwhile, your personal growth will soar. Your understanding of the business, the breadth of your thinking, and your ability to balance the hard and soft skills will be well honed in this collaborative adventure.

Good luck!