by Chris Potts

CIO: still too busy with IT to be a corporate strategist?

Jun 06, 20083 mins
IT Leadership

An insight from one of the world’s foremost authorities on leadership hits at the heart of why some CIOs have yet to make the inner circle of corporate strategy.

I was privileged to have lunch this week with David Taylor, author of the global best-selling Naked Leader books, and Cathy Holley, the UK’s leading headhunter of CIOs. I’ve known Cathy for years, but this was the first conversation I’d had with David.

David is an inspirational person to be with, both as a public speaker and in a private conversation, and his books are bursting with insights.

David wrote The Naked Leader in 2002. In its closing pages, there is an imagined email to Santa Claus – I won’t trouble you with the context – that includes tongue-in-cheek pen portraits of various executive roles. The IT Director [CIO] is described as ‘the man (sic) who wants to run the company, but is a little too busy right now’.

In light of this, I found it serendipitous that we were meeting, now, in 2008, for two reasons.

First, some CIOs have tried to run the IT department as if it were a company-within-a-company (see “The Limits of Running IT Like a Business”). So, in a way they have got to ‘run the company’, albeit a quasi one. However, many still aspire to be in the inner executive circle of the company they truly work for. But their run-IT-as-a-company-within-a-company strategy has made that aspiration more distant, not closer. So there is an uncomfortable element of truth in David’s tongue-in-cheek observation from 2002.

Second, it’s becoming clear that the next generation of CIOs are not going to be running IT. Their emerging destiny is to be the corporate-level executive leading the company’s strategy for investing in change (read “fruITion”). Running IT is not a valuable use of their time, talents and energy, it leaves people under the flawed impression that their role is still IT-oriented, and represents an obvious conflict of interests.

A CIO’s readiness for this next stage in her evolutionary journey depends on three things: her current reputation within the company; the perceived focus of her strategy (whether formalised or implicit); and the maturity of the company’s culture of investing in change. Just as some CIOs are already into the next generation, others have some distance to go before the company and she are ready.

So to paraphrase David’s email from Santa Claus: next-generation CIOs are now running the company – in collaboration with fellow corporate strategists – and are too busy doing that to run IT. That’s what a CTO is for, reporting to an operations executive such as the COO.

For a CIO that wants to become a valued member of the corporate strategy community, we now know much more about the journey and destination than we did in 2002. But we are left with the same insight: perhaps some CIOs are still too busy with IT to take their place in running the company.