by Michael Friedenberg

A Defining Moment

Jul 10, 20082 mins

nHow would you define the CIO role?n

Don’t you always find it easier to describe a friend or colleague than to describe yourself? I do, and that is why it was so fascinating to hear the response to a question posed during my recent panel at the CIO Leadership event.

The panel focused on the CEO-CIO relationship and how the CIO role is evolving. Halfway into it, Jonathan Zittrain, chair of Internet governance and regulation and principal of the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University, and cofounder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, asked the audience, “If I were to describe the role of the CEO in three words, it would be ‘runs the company’ or ‘buck stops here’; CFO is ‘writes the checks’ or ‘guards the bank’ COO is ‘trains on time’; and CSO is ‘locks the doors.’ How would you describe the CIO’s role in three words?”

Now imagine a room filled with 300 people, and when that question was asked, all you heard was dead silence. Finally, I chimed in and said, “Enabler and facilitator.” Maybe not boos from the rafters, but not wide acceptance. Monique Hines, former VP of Information Services of United Airlines, said, “Propelling the business” and “maestro of the orchestra.” Better, but not roundly accepted.

Since there was no clear answer and it was still on my mind, I posted the same question on LinkedIn. The responses came flying in:

  • Andre Mendes, CIO, Special Olympics: “Courageous, innovative, reliable.”
  • Larry Bonfante, CIO, USTA: “Facilitator of progress.”
  • Christopher Barber, CIO, WesCorp: “Technologist, businessman, psychologist.”
  • David Zeppieri, CIO, OPIC: “Career is over.”
  • John Keast, COO, “Adviser, team player, deliver…or die!”
  • Jeri Dunn, VP and CIO, Bacardi: “Resourceful, resilient, reliable.”

These are a few of the responses, ranging from pessimistic to optimistic, leader to facilitator. The one thing that became clear is that it isn’t clear. If the role of the CIO is truly about “business technology leadership,” then shouldn’t there be consensus on the role’s definition? My vote is for “business technology leadership.” Please send me your thoughts at, and maybe we can finally define the CIO role in a simple and clear manner.

P.S. If you’re an IT executive and would like to join the CIO Group on LinkedIn, we’d love to have you.