by Michelle Finch

Nine Things CIOs Wished You Knew About Their Jobs

Jul 13, 200712 mins
CIOIT Leadership

Think the CIO has it easy? Think again. It's all about politics, business needs, budgets and keeping things running while still trying to stay strategic.

CIOs get bombarded with requests; everything from vendor cold calls to staff needing project approval to board members digging for cost-cutting ideas. And despite the deluge, IT execs must learn to keep their staff, executives and customers happy.

Keeping smiles on all those groups requires that good CIOs know every role in the business, but how many people really know the role of the CIO?

So it’s time for you to walk a mile in a CIO’s shoes. Four IT leaders offered their time to discuss their jobs, why they do what they do, and to give a little insight into what goes on in their offices.

“Why do CIOs keep talking about the budget? >>

It’s a tough thing for the new CIO to learn, but Maria Pardee, CIO of BT Retail, stresses that CIOs have to begin by monetizing everything.

“Every single hour, every single day, every single project, it had better be monetized to some type of business prioritization and business value,” says Pardee.

As a result, IT workers who want to get the green light for their project need to understand its financial side and find a way to make the cost-benefit equation appealing to the CIO and—by extension—the business. Finding either financial savings or a business need for a project can help ensure funding and keep interested parties inside the company from walking away and leaving the IT team holding a project that no one wants anymore.

That scenario can be a serious problem for any CIO, particularly since most IT departments are run as cost centers, and being a cost center means constantly proving your worth, says Pardee.

“The past few years have been really enlightening, because when you’re a cost center,” she says, “it doesn’t matter if you’re on time, to spec and to budget—you’re still costing money.”

Dedra Cantrell, CIO for Emory Healthcare, sees the same issue in the healthcare industry, and the “ongoing pain of trying to get funding for IT infrastructure. While most business folks can understand the funding required for a specific project like implementing [electronic medical records], they don’t understand or maybe they don’t want to understand the need for funding for refreshing network electronics or upgrading electricals or environmentals for the data center.”

“Why does the CIO always kill my creative ideas? >>

Monetizing everything means there are going to be projects and ideas that cannot be done, no matter how cool or innovative. Sometimes for a CIO, it can be a lose-lose battle.

“We’re the ones trying to keep the tight reins on standards and things that work together, and people hate us because we’re stopping their creativity,” says Stacey Morrison, deputy CIO for the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Pardee insists, however, that it’s not actually about saying no, it’s about saying yes to the right projects. IT execs who do this correctly still find ways to work more creative projects into the budget. “Maybe at a 90/10 thing, where if you’re really being successful, take 10 percent of your resources and put them towards innovative ideas, agile business processes, next-generation concepts,” says Pardee.

“Why are we working on this [expletive] project? >>

Right after CIOs learn to say no, they learn they can’t say no to everyone.

In the CIO’s world, there will always be that one project that gets pushed through due to special circumstances, such as a high-ranking executive who wants customized software for a pet project, or an important business partner that needs specific technology integrated into an existing system. Unfortunately, it’s often these “special” requests that are the most time-consuming.

“There are some managers that want the latest and greatest toy,” says Morrison. That scenario brings extra work, because before IT staff can implement a new technology, they need to understand it and determine exactly how—and even if—it will integrate with existing systems.

Yet if the request comes from higher places, Morrison says, “I have to be very careful about how I say no to these people,” noting that depending on who’s asking, she sometimes doesn’t even have the authority to say no.

But despite the headaches, keeping managers and executives happy with the IT department is an important political strategy for any CIO, as it can lead to more opportunities and financing for IT projects in the future.

“Why does the CIO spend more time with the CFO than with the IT department? >>

Call it getting a sponsor. Call it playing politics. Pardee calls it “Who’s Your Daddy.” Sooner or later, every CIO has to accept that politics are a key part of the job, and if you don’t participate, you’re going to fight a lot of uphill battles.

“The amount of politics that one must manage at the higher executive level was a bit more than I thought it would be,” says Emory Healthcare’s Cantrell. “I thought that I already had a handle on politics [when I was an] executive director, but I was wrong! Relationship management takes on a whole new meaning at the [C-level].”

To grease the wheels of IT, every CIO needs to find the senior executive or executives who have a business need and are willing to work with the CIO to provide a partnership—financial and political, says Pardee.

“Who’s your daddy? Who’s the guy who’s got your back? Who’s the guy that’s writing the check? Who’s the guy that’s going to go knock heads together when the business process is not aligning? Who’s going to help you get the incentives in line, outside of your space?” Pardee says.

A CIO cannot function without that support, says Pardee. “Don’t even say almost. It is impossible.”

“Become a CIO, lose your techie cred. Isn’t that the rule? >>

Considering the political side of the job, it shouldn’t be any surprise that every CIO we interviewed stressed the importance of business skills—skills hopefully acquired long before taking on a CIO role.

“At this point business skills are more critical than technical ones. [You] still need to understand overall technology platforms and trends, but these constantly align with business opportunities and operational scaling,” says Marc West, senior vice president and outgoing CIO of H&R Block.

West says that providing technology in a business partnership is far from just understanding the technology and offering support. It’s also about “defining and enabling true business partnerships. [It’s] way beyond delivering the platforms. More of a ‘walk a mile in the business shoes’ required to create vision and execution alignment that matters.”

Coming into a CIO role, the immediate need for business skills can take new CIOs by surprise. Morrison says the leap from techie to CIO was educational.

“When I first started as a deputy CIO, I didn’t realize there was so much policy and planning that had to be done. I was more of a techie to begin with. I wouldn’t say I was real hands-on, but more a user support kind of person, so when I started getting into the CIO job I had to worry about budgets and planning,” says Morrison.

Is all hope lost for techies who want to go into management without losing their technology touch? No, says Morrison. “I don’t think someone without a technical background to a certain extent could do this job. They have to know something about computers; you have to have some technical stuff in your background.”

Cantrell says she still gets to be hands-on with technical issues, but admits it’s a careful balance.

“There are so many meetings that require you to be present. Being seen and being present at meetings and certain events are critical to the image of the CIO within the organization,” says Cantrell. “On the other hand, I don’t think that the other [C-level] executives understand that I also roll up my sleeves and get into problem-solving technical issues or conducting war sessions or project management. To me, it’s important to never get disconnected from the day-to-day operations and from your staff. At the same time, you also have to know when to be strategic and when to be a business leader for the organization as a whole.”

As that visibility in the business world increases, CIOs become dependent on their IT staff to take care of the technical details. Morrison says she’s heavily involved in the planning portion of projects and ensuring regulations are met. She works as a communicator between the users and technical teams, knowing the IT department is able to work out the technical details.

“I’m overseeing, I don’t actually write code,” says Morrison.

“Why does the CIO think that everything needs to have a process attached?” >>

Techies moan about process, but whenever process shows up incomplete or missing entirely, bad things happen. No one knows this more than a CIO.

“Never forget the business process,” says Pardee. “You can have the most perfectly executed IT system or program, and if it doesn’t include the people in the process, if you forget the people process part, you’re doomed.

“Even though people think IT is about systems, it really is about aligning people with process. Right now I’m on quite a few projects where we delivered what we were supposed to deliver, but if the customer service agents aren’t properly trained, if we haven’t done enough business alignment in terms of how data is fed in or how we receive data or how that data is used, your very best systems implementation go to waste.”

With their tight connection to the business side, CIOs are also more likely to hear about problems that involve process long before anyone will on the technical team. As a result IT workers who have the skills to properly develop process can become a valuable team member for any CIO.

“All the CIO does is talk about ‘the customer.’ It gets old… >>

Pardee handles external customer complaints personally.

She works directly with the customer who has logged the complaint, and often the CEO will work with her in resolving the issue. As companies increase their focus on customer service and retention, Pardee says, all levels of management need to be hands-on.

“BT is really going through a revolution right now, just like many, many other companies, where the customer is centric. We build from the customer out.”

The feedback she receives from both internal and external customers helps Pardee spot where improvements can be made both on the service side and internally.

“How quickly can we shorten or how much can we shorten any kind of cycle within the company? Whether it’s our payroll, whether it’s closing our books, we’re really trying to dramatically simplify. And those are pretty customer-focused initiatives,” says Pardee.

While it’s always been important, the time CIOs spend with customers, shareholders or other service partners is becoming more important, and a larger facet of the job.

“The role is more focused on shareholder value creation than most people realize,” says West. “Being passionate about serving our customers while we develop our staff’s skills is a critical element to creating shareholder value.”

Even if IT workers aren’t dealing directly with customers, there’s still an expectation of customer satisfaction from the CIO and the executives in general.

One metric used by BT is “first time right,” says Pardee. This includes everything from customer calls to billing to provisioning circuits and other IT services. If IT isn’t responsive to a client’s needs, the CIO will be one of the first to know.

“It’s always about change, change, change. Why doesn’t the CIO relax for a while??” >>

Do you think required technical skills change quickly in IT? CIOs must adapt to new technologies, business strategies and redefined roles as quickly as they’re unleashed.

“There is an evolutionary process for the CIO role that is dependent oftentimes upon the culture of your organization,” says Cantrell. “In the past five years my role has changed from being less tactical to more strategic. My role has become more and more one that is focused on transformation of the business—in my case the transformation of care.”

West sees the same thing for CIOs in the commercial sector.

“Our role, along with the entire technology profession, is undergoing a tremendous change from specific technical expertise to overall technology leveraging, regardless of how we acquire the technical platforms,” West says.

CIOs who don’t keep themselves abreast of these trends and evolutions, or at least have a way to track their progress, find themselves in trouble quickly. Pardee stresses the use of management information systems (MIS) to keep on top of numbers and trending.

“MIS is key. If you can’t report the numbers and the staff and the infrastructure, and the hold times and the head counts in a way that’s meaningful for the business, no matter how good you are, you’re toast.”

What does this mean for IT workers? A lot depends on the business and the CIO. Technical staff can expect to find their focus and required skills sets changing as their CIO’s role evolves. Departments may be restructured to adapt to the changing needs of the business.

“How can anyone possibly like all that stress?” >>

Budgets, politics, people skills, customers—these aren’t exactly the things most techies would claim to love. Yet at the end of the day, our CIOs are passionate about what they do.

“I enjoy it! Really, there is a lot of fun and personal development to be gained through a CIO role,” says West.

Morrison, who has a unique view of the role from her job as deputy CIO, is also enjoying her duties, but is also aware of the realities of the job.

“Sometimes I’d kind of like to be the top person, the one in charge,” says Morrison. “But a lot of time they’re the ones who catch all the spears. So I like to have them as a shield.”