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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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.”