by Martha Heller

Breaking Through the CIO Paradox

Dec 21, 20124 mins

The final CIO Paradox column examines three of the biggest contradictions that leaders in the CIO role face.

I first introduced the CIO Paradox to readers in December 2009, and I published a book on it in October. I’m ready finally to lay the CIO Paradox to rest. (But don’t start missing me yet, readers. I will be back in these pages very soon with something new.)

Since this column amounts to my CIO Paradox swan song, I would like to reflect on three of the more pernicious contradictions of the CIO role.

1. The Futurist vs. Archivist Paradox

As CIO, you are responsible for the future of your business in the age of consumerization. But you are also an archivist, who drags with you the technology decisions your company made 15 years ago. What do you do?

Learn to sell the foundation. Whether you use metaphors, data or images of burning platforms, you need to sell the unsexy side of IT. This has always been a challenge for CIOs, but with your business peers hungry for apps, products and devices, the skill is a must-have.

Simplify. As Geir Ramleth, CIO of Bechtel, says, “In IT, we always come up with complexities and barriers for what we want to do, and we overlook the simplest solution.” Ramleth uses the equation Speed = Innovation x Simplicity to communicate that the simpler the organization, the greater its ability to drive change.

Manage business intersections. Today, it’s easy for your business peers to buy their own technology. The tighter your connection to these peers, the better. The people who straddle the business-IT line will determine your success. Be sure you have the right people in those roles.

2. The Accountability vs. Ownership Paradox

CIOs proudly proclaim, “In my company, there are no IT projects, only business projects.” But when the project is done and someone isn’t happy, fingers usually point at the CIO. A committee may agree on the investment, but business leaders don’t always sustain their participation through the whole project. As one CIO said, getting business partners engaged in an IT project is like pushing a rope.

So how do you work your way out of this Scylla and Charybdis of IT leadership?

Assess your business sponsors. Do all your IT initiatives have business leaders? Do those sponsors have the credibility to lead? If you are the de facto sponsor, you are not in a good place. Engage a business leader and share the baton.

Cultivate patience. Everyone has a bias for action. But you cannot start a project until a business leader steps up to the plate. One of the most difficult skills to cultivate is the ability to balance the need for speed with the chutzpah to tell your business partners to cool their jets.

3. The Successor Paradox

CIOs know they must develop a successor, but few CEOs honor their choice. This paradox is really about the skills you need to cultivate in your senior team. As a recruiter, I can tell you that the demand for “blended executives”–those who have technology, business and relationship-building skills–exceeds the supply. If you do not grow your own, you will lose the war on talent that has snuck up on us again.

Rotate staff. Don’t wait for HR to build a leadership-development program. Draft a contract with your business peers to exchange some key leaders for a defined period of time. You’re an officer of the company. Do it yourself!

The CIO role is rife with so many contradictions that I cannot imagine how anyone could ever be successful in it. And yet, I meet successful CIOs every day. If you can make the role work, you will have a command of business, technology, customers, markets and even human behavior that is beyond the scope of any other executive. Break the paradox and get ready for greatness.