by Michael Fitzgerald

The CIO’s Guide to Multitasking

Mar 01, 2004 8 mins
Business IT Alignment

Wanted: CIO. Must be a strategist, technologist, operations expert, supply chain manager and department chief.

Does this sound like an imprecise, all-encompassing job description? In fact, it reflects what many IT leaders are finding about their jobs: It’s hard to put them in a box.

That’s as opposed to the classic, Gartner-approved definition of what a CIO does: Lead supply and demand for the IT function. “The CIO maps to strategy, anticipates requirements and needs in terms of technology, and then needs to be able to supply it,” says Ellen Kitzis, group vice president for the Americas division of Gartner Executive Programs.

Well, maybe that was true for your father’s CIO, but it isn’t anymore. Indeed, one can almost hear Kitzis smile as she recounts the job description; she knows that today’s IT executives face many more tasks in organizations, as companies become more information-centric.

Catherine Brune, senior vice president and CTO at Allstate Insurance, says her list of jobs includes the expected range?project manager, business funder, vendor manager and security specialist?and some extraordinary things as well, such as innovation incubator, referee, psychologist and fortune-teller. “And when my crystal ball isn’t as good as it needs to be, I need to be a good Houdini,” she jokes.

Kitzis says that “in many ways, CIOs today are being asked to wear many CXO types of hats.” Because IT crosses most, if not all, levels of the corporation, CIOs “can be the glue or the enabler that brings the whole organization together,” she says. It’s difficult to be everything to everyone, but that’s the reality of the current CIO job. Here’s how to make all the hats fit.

The All-in-One Executive

At the highest level, CIOs must have the vision thing down; they need to be able to see where technology is going and what will matter to their companies, and then have an ability to lead the organization in that direction. That kind of leadership skill resembles what a CEO does for the overall company. CIOs must also manage costs and deliver returns on investments like a CFO, particularly in today’s cost-conscious, results-oriented business environment. There is increasing and steady pressure on CIOs to optimize performance and manage operations internally, much as a COO does for a company as a whole. Finally, CIOs also have to serve a variety of other business units, which Kitzis says makes their job more complex than just running a department.

Indeed, CIOs have so many duties and get involved in so many facets of corporate life that it’s easy to argue they wear more hats than anyone else.

That’s a classic setup for having responsibility but no authority. For instance, security and privacy issues, as well as disaster recovery, require a companywide effort. To guide security efforts, Brune in effect becomes first a consultant for the rest of Allstate, recommending business practices and policies to ensure that all information remains secure and private, and then a negotiator, wrangling with business unit heads on how they should implement such policies.

She also finds herself working on tasks that are more directly related to other departments than IT, such as making sure that Allstate information is tracked in a way that shields the company from legal liability. That task may sound like it belongs in the legal department, but Brune is responsible for the technology that makes it work. That’s one reason why the company’s chief privacy officer reports within her organization, though technology isn’t a major component of that person’s job.

Brune’s negotiation skills come in handy, she says, when she wants to see something implemented but doesn’t quite have the budget for it. If she can build an effective case for how a technology will help a business unit, the unit head might kick in money from his budget to make the project happen.

“Begging is the best skill you can have,” she says. She also thinks that both her 28-year career at Allstate and her operational experience outside of IT (in sales and marketing) help her understand the needs of the business units, which limits the potential tensions of a cross-enterprise role like hers. Not only that, but she also manages her own P&L group, Allstate’s printing unit.

Brune has been in her role as CTO for just over a year. She has spent much of that time thinking about how IT should function at Allstate, which is rethinking its entire organizational structure. Most of the company’s units have remained standalone, but IT and marketing were established as enterprisewide organizations, with the belief that that will help the company’s long-term growth.

Even so, Brune places relationship-building above organizational structure. She blocks out time on her calendar almost every day for the conversations necessary for getting the IT exec job done. She gets in at 7 most mornings to make sure she has time for talking to people.

The VC Inside

On top of their corporate roles, many CIOs now are expected to behave in almost entrepreneurial fashion. That’s the case for Ralph Terkowitz, CTO at The Washington Post Co. In addition to his responsibilities as operations manager, administrator, strategist, gatekeeper and coach, he serves as corporate explorer and investor. In the explorer role, Terkowitz sits on the board of TRUSTe so that the Post can stay on the cutting edge of online privacy issues. Terkowitz vets the Post’s venture capital investments, such as the stake it took in, a promising social networking startup.

He also wears a CEO’s hat, having been the CEO of Digital Ink, a Post Co. subsidiary in online publishing, and the co-CEO of another subsidiary, BrassRing, a recruitment software and services company. All the while, he performed the role of corporate CIO for the Post Co.

Terkowitz has been able to do all this because as CIO for The Washington Post Co., he has a corporate job that is different from serving as CIO of The Washington Post newspaper. Washington Post Co. also publishes Newsweek and owns several dozen smaller newspapers, six TV stations and a regional cable system. It also owns Kaplan, the learning and test preparation company. So Terkowitz has to plot a path for all of these units but does not have to run any of them day-to-day. Like all the company’s divisions, The Post newspaper has its own IT staff and CIO, who reports to the president of the newspaper, with a dotted line to Terkowitz.

“Not having that large day-to-day responsibility gives me the opportunity to touch all our businesses and related business, to look at the impact of technology and bring it back inside,” he says. In fact, his role often centers on determining best practices and collaborating across business units on technology choices.

Terkowitz retains responsibility for certain areas of technology across the company’s operating units. He is responsible for relationships with auditors and for making sure that the IT departments are in compliance with regulations, like Sarbanes-Oxley. He also runs the company’s shared services, such as its single-sign-on security initiative and human resources IS.

“We looked at what mattered to individual units and what was a necessary evil. The necessary evil is all shifting to me,” he quips. In large part, that’s being done to save the company money?it gets better volume pricing when all its units are considered for something like e-mail.

Still, it might sound like Terkowitz has to spend so much time switching hats that he probably wishes he were a hydra. Not so, he says. He has found that he doesn’t have to wear all, or even most, of his hats every day. “The various hats either shrink or swell depending on the year,” he says.

As with many CIOs, his role adapts to the economy. In 1999 and 2000, the bulk of his time was spent on innovating, particularly within the newly developing dotcom businesses at the Washington Post Co. The following years, 2001 and 2002, saw a great deal of focus on best practices, cost-cutting and controls, and improving IT’s alignment with the business. Now his focus is shifting back to innovation. In fact, in 2004 Terkowitz began performing the CTO role as a consultant to the Post while starting work at a private equity firm.

That kind of role won’t make Gartner’s list of things CIOs must do. But the venerable consultancy is rethinking how it defines the CIO’s role. Kitzis says Gartner is considering looking at different structures for the CIO job. She says she’s seen IS organizations that have their own CFO, CTO, head of HR and even a chief marketing officer. “We’ve begun to talk about the Office of the CIO,” she says. Now there’s a hat stand for you. (For insights into the Office of the CIO structure, see Susan H. Cramm’s column “Oh, the Perils of the OCIO,” this page.)

For all that the requirements of IT leadership have changed, Brune doesn’t think CIOs wear more hats than other executives. “You have people in all walks of life juggling things they didn’t used to,” she says. Brune does concede that the hats she wears as CIO are harder to manage, though, because they run across the enterprise, rather than being oriented toward a single business unit. Now there’s a new title for your business card: Chief Juggling Officer.