by CIO Staff

Career Counsel: Questions About the Ever-Changing CIO Role

Apr 01, 200310 mins

What’s in a Name?

Q: Is there a new title being used at the senior executive level to denote the expanding role of the CIO into strategic planning for the entire corporation as well as driving mergers and acquisitions integration? If not, is it time to create one?

A: The changing role of the “head of technology”?represented by the titular transition from IS director to CIO?is all about the inclusion of IT in the corporate mission and business strategy. In this mode, the CIO has a seat at the senior management table to ensure that IT is an integral component of business strategy, and to enable, facilitate and proactively generate competitive advantage for top-line growth and operational optimization for bottom-line performance. While still a very small minority, some top IT executives have progressed further to participation in the fundamental and underlying strategic planning of the company’s business. While I’m not aware of any new title that reflects this paradigm, excellence in this capacity may very well lead an ambitious CIO through the glass ceiling to an old title such as general manager, president, COO and even CEO.

Regarding mergers and acquisitions activity, beyond the evaluation and integration of the technologies of conjoining entities, there must also be acknowledgement of the essential business processes and procedures. Thus, IT plays a crucial role in these activities, just as the CFO reconciles accounting practices and consolidates ledgers, and the chief marketing officer unifies marketing plans and activities. A C-level officer must own overall responsibility for the merger process. If not the COO, why not a world-class CIO?

-Mark Polansky, a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice in Korn/Ferry International’s New York City office


Q: I was recently given the opportunity to change my title from CIO to CTO. Doesn’t the workplace equate them?

A: In some instances the two titles are used in an equivalent manner. But in the majority of cases, it is the CIO who heads up IT in a corporate environment, with the CTO serving in a very important but technology-focused supporting role. This is different from the CTO who typically heads up R&D in an engineering-type environment. The CTO title in a nonvendor environment implies that you do not have full IT accountability.


Clarify the Roles

Q: For the past five years, I have been the CIO of a midsize regional distribution company. The only fly in the ointment is the vice president of operations who, with a tenure of 20-plus years, sees new technology as his purview. How can I clarify the roles of operations, sales and marketing, and IT?

A: I’LL ASSUme that your question refers to technical initiatives undertaken by the vice president of business operations, not computer operations. As such, that executive should be your partner and comrade?not your rival?in exploring and deploying new technologies to improve the efficiency of his department’s activities. Unless management is totally clueless, it does seem likely that the relationships with senior management developed during his 20-year tenure have sanctioned this vice president’s technological independence. Additionally, it seems possible that you have been unsuccessful in creating a working relationship with the vice president, regardless of whether it’s your fault, his or both.

Your first move is a heart-to-heart with the vice president. Take him to lunch and try to discover the underlying reasons for his behavior. Also, clear the air of prior misunderstandings. It’s never too late to begin the process of creating rapport, trust and, most important, collaboration. Don’t attempt to have him stop his inventiveness, but instead propose a partnership that should yield even better results for his operations. Alternatively, if you encounter obstinate behavior, then it’s time to check with your boss to find out where you stand, and then proceed accordingly.


Org Chart

Q: Given the diversity of the CIO role, what are the typical direct reports and the organizational chart structure for a CIO?

A: In a simple corporate scenario, the CIO must have a management team of direct reports responsible for all facets of application development and support as well as infrastructure and operations. How many direct reports is largely a function of the IT shop’s size and complexity. Application development and support may be divided among managers aligned to the appropriate business and operating functions, or they can be pooled and deployed on a project basis guided by knowledgeable business systems analysts and liaison experts. Infrastructure and operations responsibilities can be assigned to managers of technology planning and acquisition, data center operations, networking, help desk, security and so on, or alternatively to a chief technology officer.

In a composite corporate environment with multiple operating companies, divisions or business units, each of these entities may have its own CIO, each with an organization similar to that just described. Such CIOs typically report on a solid line to the relevant operating unit president or general manager, and on a dotted line to the corporate CIO. That individual has a charter and a corresponding organization for the development and support of corporate applications, and more important, for coordinating common interests among business units.


Company Size

Q: I am currently in my fourth year as CTO for a small midwestern computer software company. I am making good money and have free reign to create solutions. However, the economy has caused a good deal of corporate uncertainty. I am now being approached by a large multinational corporation and have been offered a position as its CIO to be headquartered in Europe. Would this be a good time for a change, and is CTO to CIO a step in the right direction?

A: Small and large companies have their advantages and disadvantages. The entrepreneurial nature of a small company can be exciting and provide freedom, creativity and opportunity. For example, it is possible for a small company that is doing well and has a market-leading product to merge with, or be acquired by, another company resulting in potential professional growth for you. On the other hand, going with a large company could provide stability (good to have in these difficult economic times) and offer broader professional options such as larger budgets and staff accountability, and international exposure. In time, an opportunity may present itself to run a business as a general manager; however, with this opportunity comes the bureaucracy and politics that exist in all large corporations.

The answer to your decision lies with questions you must ask yourself. Where do you want to be professionally five years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished? Once you’ve answered those questions, you should know whether your aspirations could be achieved at your current company or only with another employer. I would also advise you to think hard about whether you would be happy in a large corporate environment. Try to speak to people you know and trust about your tolerance level for bureaucracy. If you do think you could handle a large corporation, I can add that recruiters like to see candidates who are successful in both large and small companies. It demonstrates flexibility and the ability to deal with the ambiguity that often exists in large organizations.

Finally, depending on the industry, the CIO role typically has broader responsibilities than the CTO. The role of the chief information officer is a stressful job, and turnover can be high as there is significant pressure to do more with less. To be successful, you must effectively navigate the highest echelons of the company and put a solid team “on the field” that can execute effectively.

-Gerry McNamara, partner of Heidrick & Struggles, Charlotte, N.C.

Focusing Efforts

Q. I am a senior applications developer with good experience in all areas of software project management with heaviest involvement on the development side. I will soon graduate from a top-25 business school with a master’s degree in management of information systems, an MBA-type program, with particular emphasis on e-business and general IT management issues. Since there are no career advancement or promotion opportunities at my current company in which I could use my newly acquired knowledge, I am considering my next move toward the end goal as a CTO/CIO position. Where should I focus my search efforts?

A: First things first: Do you want to be a CIO or a CTO? On the corporate side, where technology is applied to the information and transaction processing needs of the enterprise’s day-to-day operations, it is the CIO who holds top-line responsibility for all strategic and tactical facets of IT. The CTO?who usually reports to the CIO?is tasked with evaluation, acquisition, deployment and the support of new technologies, and the development and implementation of new IT initiatives. Given your current position as a senior applications developer, coupled with an MBA-like master’s degree, I would conclude that you intend to pursue the CIO career path. You should be looking for opportunities now that will provide you with project and staff management experience, and as much exposure to business problem solving and collaboration with business unit staff as possible.


On the Path

Q. I am interested in pursuing the coveted CIO position. I have a technical background in networking and network operating systems. I hold an MA in international relations, am currently working toward an MBA in e-commerce, and I am PMP certified. I am a consultant with a very large corporation in the e-solutions business, and I’m currently assigned as an account program manager at an applications development company. I manage 10 people with ultimate responsibility for service delivery of help desk and desktop support for a 5,000-user environment. My current employer does not have positions available above project manager that would directly relate to a CIO career path. Should I seek a position outside my company? If so, at what level should I pursue such opportunities?

A: This is a classic consulting and vendor company career dilemma: How does one manage an IT-oriented career in an environment that is driven by the firm’s need to generate billings and to satisfy the tactical requirements of its customers? Clearly, the P&L characteristics of IT products and services companies mandate that client-facing front-line employees remain focused on revenue generation (sales) and contract fulfillment (service delivery). So if you want to take a run at the CIO position, you must make the jump across the career aisle to find your next opportunity in a corporate milieu deploying, rather than supplying, IT solutions. Likely positions to pursue include manager or director of end user computing and services, distributed computing and networking, and the like, to take advantage of your experience. Any chance to utilize your international or e-commerce educational background would be a major plus for both you and your next employer.