by Stephanie Overby

How CIOs Can Benefit From Having Dual Roles

Apr 17, 200820 mins
CIOIT Leadership

More CIOs are being asked to take on responsibilities outside of IT. And it's not just the business that benefits. Expanding your job description can be good for your career, toou2014provided you master the politics and rethink how you run IT.

Among the entire management team at Best Western International, Scott Gibson has the longest title.

Sure, there’s a tendency toward wordiness when it comes to describing positions at the hotelier. Look at the nameplate on Ric Leutwyler’s door: Senior Vice President of Brand Quality and Member Service.

But the extra ink required to print Gibson’s latest batch of business cards goes beyond verbosity. The 47-year-old technology executive, who joined the company in 2005 as CIO and senior vice president of distribution, last summer added a third title: senior vice president of strategic services. That means Gibson heads up the IT organization and the call center operations team, where he oversees all methods of distribution from call centers to travel agents to online travel sites, and he is in charge of corporate strategic planning.

(For the record, that makes him CIO and Senior Vice President, Distribution and Strategic Services.)

While that drawn-out descriptor may make him unique among his Best Western peers, Gibson’s hardly singular when judged against the CIO cohort. More than half of CIOs report having responsibilities outside of IT, according to a survey of 1,500 CIOs by Gartner Executive Programs. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of IT leaders are accepting official positions that extend beyond the traditional technology function. “We’ve seen enough of it going on that we can say it really is a trend,” says Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester Research.

It’s what Martha Heller, managing director of the IT leadership practice at executive search firm ZRG, calls the “CIO-and” phenomenon. The new CIO-plus roles are more substantial than hyphenate titles of old like CIO and vice president of e-business. Today, notes Heller (who is also a CIO columnist), “the add-on titles are typically more strategic,enterprisewide and often customer-facing.”

That seems like good news. CIOs have been so successful that their bosses are betting they’ll add value outside of IT—an affirmation, if there ever was one, of the business value of an IT leader. And CIOs in these magnified roles are better positioned to deliver improved processes and business results than if they held only the technology position. “CIOs have a greater ability to influence their firms’ direction—process, strategy, business models—when they have more of a role on the business side,” says Cameron.

But a hybrid role has its downside. It requires infinitely more from the IT leader—and the IT staff, who have to take on more responsibility as their bosses’ workload compounds. If you think you’ve got your hands full with just IT, well, forget it. What’s more, having a dual role can breed resentment outside IT as CIOs encroach on others’ turf. Yet some experts say these hybrid roles are a necessary outgrowth of the increasingly business-focused CIO role. “The natural evolution is to have the topmost role of the senior technology executive become a general management role, not a technology role,” says Cameron. “As a result, it is normal for [today’s] CIO to pick up additional responsibilities that require the same style of general management discipline.”

But these CIO-“and” roles have some wondering what will become of the standalone chief information officer role. “The CIO is going to be more of a process innovation and business transformation agent who understands how to apply technology to support strategic initiatives,” says Sam Gordon, CIO practice director at Harvey Nash Executive Search. “I think it’s unlikely that the CIO role as we know it will exist in 10 to 15 years’ time.”

Hyphenates Are Hot Again

There is precedent for the CIO-plus role. In the 1990s, you couldn’t throw a rock in IT leadership circles without hitting someone with e-commerce-this or digital-that tacked on to his title. But the trend subsided when the dotcom bubble burst. Other title enhancements have tended to be industry-specific or related to how a particular company uses IT. In software companies, there’s the ever-present CIO-CTO hyphenate. Manufacturing companies have been known to add supply chain duties to the CIO position.

But the expanded CIO role of today, say experts, is different. IT executives are taking on corporate strategy, heading up revenue-producing business units, and taking on roles as varied as logistics and international expansion. According to the 2007/2008 CIO Survey by Harvey Nash USA, 44 percent of respondents reported having responsibilities outside of IT. “The kind of stuff CIOs are good at—consistency, predictability, an organized approach to problem solving—can be a unique skill set in many companies,” says Cameron. “IT is one of the only departments that spans the enterprise, which puts the CIO in an excellent position to drive value in other areas.” Indeed, CIOs who have worked hard to prove the importance of IT have made that case so well that their bosses are beginning to take advantage of their expertise.

“We have worked hard to demystify IT and be seen as integral to the business. We’ve learned to think and act and speak ‘business first,'” says Joe Drouin, VP and CIO of TRW Automotive, who recently took on additional responsibility for global logistics. “This is all being recognized by senior executives who say, ‘This person is more than a technologist. He or she knows my business as well as anyone else, if not better. What else could I have him or her do for me?'”

The phenomenon is familiar to Al Etterman. When he took a job at software company OpenWave in 2002, he recounts, “I started as CIO, but I picked up a couple of other pieces along the way.” He ended up in charge of a corporate program office, real estate and facilities. “I kind of forgot to duck,” he says, half-joking. When JDS Uniphase (JDSU), a Milpitas, Calif.-based manufacturer of communications test and measurement solutions and optical products, hired Etterman in 2004, the new job encompassed not only the CIO role but also the position of SVP of customer advocacy. He added chief administrative officer to his portfolio a year later.

Most of the time, additional titles are bestowed after success with an IT initiative. “It almost happens through osmosis. That initiative becomes a stepping-stone to a bigger leadership role,” says Gordon of Harvey Nash.

When Tom Coleman became CIO of plumbing products manufacturer Sloan Valve Company in 2000, he was concerned that the company wasn’t getting enough out of its SAP software. “I had experience with business process reengineering so I started talking to my boss, the CEO, about the fact that unless the software were connected to business pro­cess improvement, the system was worthless,” Coleman recalls. Long story short, business process improvement became one of the top corporate initiatives. Coleman became, in addition to CIO, the chief process officer (CPO).

Other times, however, an expanded role comes straight from left field. TRW’s Drouin had discussed the idea of added responsibility with his boss. “I was expecting something that might be more intuitively linked to IT,” he says. Like running TRW’s continuous improvement organization or its shared services centers. At an offsite last year, Drouin suggested to the COO that the company form a task force to reduce inventory, outlining plans for the team and even offering up a few IT people to contribute. To Drouin’s delight, the COO loved the idea. But to his surprise, the COO asked him to create and run a new global logistics organization. The focus of the new job: Get a handle on inventory and materials management, but also oversee transportation, freight, distribution, warehousing and customs.

It was pretty far afield from any additional role Drouin had pictured himself taking on, but he was game. For one thing, “I don’t think I could have comfortably declined,” says Drouin. “My boss and I discussed that I was ready for a new challenge.” Besides, says Drouin, the add-on role opens up a world of possibilities careerwise. “Having this additional, non-IT responsibility could lead my career in a different direction than I had always assumed—into a more general management or operations-management leadership role. It could be a good thing.”

Ready for the Extra Responsibility? Or Just Willing?

For all the talk about the unique qualities a CIO can bring to an additional enterprise role, IT isn’t the only function that can offer its expertise more broadly. Finance, for example, has an impact on every part of the business, too. Yet it’s rare to see the CFO tackling anything other than his executive fiduciary responsibilities.

It may be that CIOs—still viewed by some as the ugly stepchildren of the C suite—remain eager to prove their worth and are more willing to take on additional duties. Says Harvey Nash’s Gordon: “IT leaders see [these expanded roles] as a way to be seen as a true businessperson.”

The danger is that the CIO could end up taking on tasks that no one else wants to do. “The CIO can end up doing strategic jobs that are core to business success and dependent on IT, or the CIO may get invited to do onerous tasks that they wouldn’t want to put on their resume,” says Forrester’s Cameron. When asked if CIOs who take on extra roles are being exploited, JDSU’s Etterman is matter-of-fact: “You probably are being taken advantage of.” But Etterman, who describes himself as a “fixer,” doesn’t mind as long as it’s an area where he can add something to the role and take something new from it for himself.

If CIOs are being used by the corporation when being tasked with non-IT roles, it’s certainly with their consent. “It’s in my interest to make myself valuable to this organization,” says Gibson of Best Western. “I saw a hole in the strategic services area and the difficulty the company had filling it. I had a strong point of view about what we should do with strategy. So I volunteered to take it on. I can make a difference and make myself more valuable.” For Gibson, who says he doesn’t make decisions on a “good for my career/bad for my career” basis, the added roles have been a boon. “Having multiple roles has made this job more interesting than jobs I’ve had before. It’s been good for me.” But, says Cameron, “most CIOs do consider it a good career move, because most people believe that the bigger the sphere of influence, the greater the success of the individual.”

CIOs are likely to view being tapped for additional responsibility as a vote of confidence. “In this case, my boss saw an opportunity to advance the organization by creating a new function, and he had the confidence in me to lead it and deliver results,” says TRW’s Drouin. “He didn’t have to make either of those choices.” Indeed, these additional responsibilities confirm how far CIOs have come. “[These roles] validate IT as being a true strategic enabler rather than a support function,” says Gordon of Harvey Nash.

Still, it’s not a decision to be made flippantly. (See “6 Questions CIOs Should Ask Before Adding to Their Job Description”) “If someone does make the move [to take on additional business roles] and it doesn’t work out, it can be bad for your reputation, ” says Gordon. That caused Best Western’s Gibson to toss and turn more than a few nights before adding a third responsibility. “I know a couple of CIOs who have evolved into COO and CEO roles, so I guess it was clear to me that it was possible to succeed outside of technology,” says Gibson. But he had never worked outside of IT. “I probably came into it with more trepidation than anyone else. Part of me was saying, OK, this is really different. Why do you want to do this? Why does Best Western think I can do this?'”

CIOs can—and should—say no to opportunities that don’t work for them. For one thing, CIOs who are still working to improve the technology group will only hurt themselves—and the business—by donning another business hat, says Cameron. “If a CIO has expanded responsibilities but doesn’t manage IT well, that CIO is less likely to be in a better position to deliver improved processes and business results,” adds Cameron.

A “no” needn’t been seen as a negative. “If the role doesn’t have the right sponsorship in the company or does not add value to your career, why take it?” says Gordon, who’s seen CIOs turn down additional roles they didn’t feel were strategic or would be too much of a distraction to the IT role. “If I wasn’t up for the broader responsibility, I would have had to say no,” says Gibson.

The Upside of Multiple Roles

For Gibson, excitement ultimately outweighed apprehension. His second role of vice president of distribution put him in charge of a revenue stream. “The job of IT person gives you a lot of opportunity to wreck revenue, but this would give the chance to add to revenue,” says Gibson. “Having more of a business portfolio was more attractive because it seemed more challenging. I’m establishing business relationships with partners, defining the business terms, as well as delivering the technology to bring more revenue.”

The unknowns of an extra-IT role can be a thrill. “It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s different every hour of the day,” says JDSU’s Etterman. “I can go from a real estate negotiations meeting to an Oracle conversation about SOA and Web 2.0 to compensation discussions to a board meeting.”

The potential benefits to the CIO—and the company—can’t be denied. Dual-role CIOs stay around longer, says Forrester’s Cameron. “There’s a much more obvious connection from them to the business because they’re more instrumental in driving improvements in the company.”

Indeed, CIOs who have taken on additional business are better positioned to deliver improved processes and business results. “I am both the customer and provider of a solution. There are people on my team that are using technology to generate revenue, and there are people on my team who are delivering technology,” says Gibson. “Conflict [between IT and the business] has not gone away, but it’s isolated at my level.”

Best Western is currently rolling out ITIL best practices, for example. There’s a natural tendency within the business to want to introduce new technology features and functions fast and furiously, without much consideration of what that can do to the stability of the IT environment. But Gibson has been able to slow things down and introduce ITIL-inspired change-management processes that empower the technology team to delay production changes if they represent a significant risk to current capabilities. “Since, in some cases, I’m both the senior user and the leader of the technology team, direct reports from both sides are empowered to work together,” says Gibson. “We’re able to make a lot more headway in making those processes most effective.”

At Sloan Valve, Coleman’s triple-threat role as CIO, and, since 2004, chief process officer and leader of corporate strategic planning, has eliminated a lot of bureaucratic back-and-forth between departments. “I sit down once a month with functions to talk about priorities,” says Coleman. “Most big projects are driven by the strategic plan. There’s nearly complete alignment, although I don’t care for that word. There’s clarity.”

Be Careful What You Wish For

Coleman spends half his time on IT issues, half on process management and improvement, “and 20 percent of my time on strategy. That’s 120 percent,” he says with a hearty chuckle.

Time management is critical for a CIO who takes on roles beyond IT. And it’s not always a laughing matter. “The downside is that it might kill me,” says Drouin. He underestimated the additional workload. “And I don’t even feel like I am fully engaged in the new job yet. I am certainly not doing justice to my new team at this point in providing leadership and direction. I am out of my comfort zone. I simply don’t have the same breadth or depth of experience with logistics that I do with IT, which adds to the stress level.”

Drouin is worried that as he gets the new logistics group up and running, he could easily let his CIO self slide. From conversations with peers who have juggled multiple roles, “it seemed that the IT role kind of got pushed to the back,” Drouin says. “I do not want that to happen to me. I love the CIO role, both what it is now and what it is becoming. I like that the CIO role is becoming very business-process focused. CIOs are engaging with their peers at a different level, looking for solutions to business problems and ways to improve business process.”

For CIOs taking on additional roles, delegation is paramount. “While making adjustments to be seen to be successful in a new role, you definitely have to burn the candle at both ends for a while,” says Gordon of Harvey Nash. “But generally, this is an opportunity to develop a team around you.”

Best Western’s Gibson had to put most of his attention on IT, rather than on distribution, when he started his job. Having more than one role meant Gibson had to appoint managers who could make critical IT decisions, as well as establish processes that did not require his daily oversight. Now, he relies on his direct reports to deal with most tactical, and even strategic, challenges without him. “You have to have a predisposition for empowering your direct reports and giving them the freedom to deal with things,” he says.

Overcoming Resistance

Most CIOs who take on another role don’t feel diminished by it. But for members of their staff, it can take time to adjust to the new reality. “It was confusing for my team initially,” says Gibson. “But now I think they feel like they’re coequal members of my larger team. In this role, I can do a better job of having the business make clear what they want to pursue with technology; I can actually make the lives of IT people a little better.”

Drouin says the IT group at TRW has been supportive of his add-on role. “Generally, they have seen it as strong support from the top that we have made significant progress as an organization.”

Individuals on the business side can take longer to come around. When Coleman arrived at Sloan Valve, he inherited an IT role previously filled by a dictatorial personality: “That had created a lot of resentment, so I had to be careful about coming across as all-knowing.” When he decided to take on additional responsibility outside of IT, he knew he had to tread even more gingerly. “In the early stages, a lot of people wondered what my real agenda was. They assumed I wanted to take over their department or become the next president of the company,” Coleman recalls. Coleman made it clear he had “zero interest” in running the show.

“Clearly there can be resentment if somebody feels they have been passed over for a role and the CIO does not have the requisite ‘business credentials,'” says Gordon. “It may be a misunderstanding of the CIO role that causes people to be on guard, not considering IT to be ‘part of the business.'” Being seen by those in the business as more than “just” the CIO takes time. When Michael Hites was CIO and vice president of planning and IT with New Mexico State University, “everyone from the ‘past’ [would still ask] me about the latest BlackBerry or how to fix their website,” he says. “It’s my responsibility to be known as ‘the strategic planning guy,’ not theirs. My actions need to clearly show that.” Hites, who began a new job in March with the much larger University of Illinois system as associate vice president of administrative IT services for the university administration, which includes Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, Springfield and Global Campus, says his experience outside of IT helped him get the job.

A CIO-Plus Future?

Gibson, whose CIO-plus role at Best Western marks his third C-level position, started out the way most CIOs used to—as a programmer. “But the longer I worked in businesses, the further and further I moved away from the nuts and bolts of technology,” he says. Gibson sees his position as head of IT, distribution and business strategy as just another advancement in his evolution. “It’s a natural progression,” he says. “People who find themselves in the business of being successful CIOs today are people who would be successful in other areas of the business outside of technology.”

Perhaps the majority of IT leaders fall into that category. But not everyone’s game for tackling the CIO role and something else, notes Cameron. The increase in CIOs doing double or triple duty in the business does have some in the IT community wondering—or worrying—about what this means for the standalone CIO role.

“I do actually think the CIO role should be a discrete role, one that should be important enough to warrant a dedicated, senior executive position in any company,” admits Drouin of TRW. He says the CIO role at TRW is big enough to keep one person busy. “On the other hand, I appreciate the confidence my boss had in giving me a role that is really core to our operations. This was a very personal decision, more about my own development and readiness to take on an additional challenge than it was about my boss feeling a need to expand the CIO role.”

The CEO of Sloan Valve recently asked CIO and CPO Coleman if he wanted to drop the CIO part of his title altogether. “My CEO would tell you, IT is becoming the process management department. The CIO is becoming CPO, period,” says Coleman. But Coleman plans on keeping the CIO moniker for now.

JDSU’s Etterman ultimately gave up straddling the CAO and CIO roles. Earlier this year he hired someone to take over his IT role full-time. “At a certain point, you look around and say, this is really stupid,” says Etterman. “The CIO role is big enough. You can figure out how to do a couple more things well. You can’t do much more without compromising the value you’re delivering to the IT organization.” JDSU’s CEO and board members reluctantly agreed. “There just wasn’t enough of me to go around,” says now executive vice president and CAO-only Etterman.

Forrester’s Cameron, for one, doesn’t think the CIO title is endangered. “The CIO title sticks,” he says. “There will always have to be someone in charge of technology.”

At Best Western, Gibson plans to keep the CIO title—and the other two. “There’s no danger I will turn them over to someone else anytime soon,” he says. “On the other hand, I don’t know that I’m so emotionally invested that I would be reluctant to do that in the future. I want to be valuable to this organization in a way that works for this organization.”