by Jack Bergstrand

How to Join the Strategic Inner CIO Circle

Jun 07, 20123 mins

Becoming a strategic CIO requires a clear vision, great communication skills and a reputation for managing change

Strategy is more than just an important part of a CIO’s job, it can also be the most fun part. Yet some very talented CIOs get boxed out of the inner circle, overlooked because they aren’t seen as strategic enough. There are three essential ingredients to succeeding as a strategic CIO: Your vision, your ability to communicate that vision, and your reputation as a change agent.

Start with a winning strategic vision–which doesn’t mean coming up with crazy ideas. The vision should focus on your company’s business model, including what needs to stay the same and what should change. Capitalize on your individual assets, especially your employees, your customer relationships and your operating capabilities. Ultimately, the vision comes down to execution, which is one reason CIOs are in a good position to create a successful strategy.

A clear vision can also help your company manage its portfolio of projects by helping executives make better decisions when multiple projects are competing for resources. The litmus test for a successful strategic vision is when key stakeholders can say “no” to good ideas because they are off-strategy.

Of course, one of the best ways to ensure the success of your strategic vision is, in the words of management legend Peter Drucker, “to invent your own future.” To do this successfully requires the second ingredient: effective–that is, clear, consistent and constant–communication.

Many IT professionals don’t put sufficient time and effort into their communication, which leads to a lot of redoing work and undermines their reputations. People in IT too often spew out a sea of acronyms and don’t connect on the human and emotional levels. Learning how to clearly communicate the company’s vision and strategy is one of the best investments an executive can make.

Communication requires hard work. And less is more when it comes to length. I’m often stunned by the needle-in-a-haystack-style communications that come from IT departments, where readers and listeners have to hunt for the main idea. Make your point, make it connect, and make it over and over again.

This leads to the third and most important ingredient for strategic CIOs: effective change management. Your ability to be a change agent will define your success and your reputation. I often encounter organizations that are struggling with change management. The biggest hurdles are usually differing visions of success and over-engineered governance structures. These problems trigger finger-pointing, undermine decision-making, and cause a slew of project-management problems.

With change management, as with communication, less is more. I remember when I was brought in to restructure Coca-Cola’s global SAP implementation. Because of the size of the project, the governance structure–developed by a highly respected consulting firm–included more than 100 people. We cut the governance structure to three people–yes, three–and the situation turned around quickly.

If you involve too many people, your initiative will be destined to have many interesting points of view and precious few conclusions. By enforcing a clear vision, consistent communications, and a simple change-management structure, employees will self-organize much more productively–moving ahead independently when it makes sense, working together when that’s what is needed, and staying on the sidelines if their expertise is not required.

Strategic value ultimately comes from better serving your customers, increasing your sustainable growth rate, and generating more profit from products and services. CIOs should play a strategic role in making that happen.

Jack Bergstrand is founder and CEO of the consultancy Brand Velocity and author of Reinvent Your Enterprise. He is a former CIO and CFO at Coca-Cola.