by Thomas Wailgum

What CEOs Want from CIOs

Dec 19, 20075 mins
IT Leadership

I received a lot of thoughtful responses to a blog post I wrote in early December. The title of the article was: If IT Isn’t Aligned with the Business By Now, CIOs Should Quit or Be Fired. (So much for subtlety, huh?)

In the post, I ranted about the fact that we still have to hear about CIOs’ “alignment issues.” My main contention was that we’re at the end of 2007, and this should all have been solved by now. But it hasn’t.

Days after I posted my alignment rant, I received a newsletter from Cathy Hotka & Associates, a retailing and IT industry networking company. In the newsletter were 10 pieces of CIO advice from Jack Groban.

Now I had never heard of Jack Groban, or his eponymous search firm, or the fact that he had spent more than 25 years working in executive search firms, with a heavy emphasis on placing CIOs (and working with CEOs who were looking to hire a CIO).

But after reading his advice on “How CEOs Define Success in Their CIO,” I was impressed by the cumulative insight that Groban offered. These nuggets just weren’t rehashed stories laced with clunky metaphors and tired cliches; they were straightforward, actionable pieces that every CIO or IT leader in training should print out and tape to their office wall. (New Year’s is upon us, and there are always resolutions to be made.)

In fact, these CEO insights were just the antidote for the alignment ills that had confounded me a week earlier. And, I think, if you listen to and follow these 10 items, alignment will never again be a problem for you. Here’s the list.

Everything works all the time. Forget long-range IT strategies and mega-transformation projects. Credibility is directly proportionate to reliability. Ignore the basics at your peril.

They think, talk and behave like they’re running a P&L. Line management has to believe that you understand their business, that you worry about the same things they do, and that IT resources are being applied to make them more successful. You need to understand and use their jargon. They don’t need to understand IT-speak.

I know they’ll tell it to me straight, always. Projects can be fixed, character can’t. While projects need to be well-managed, fudging the truth on costs or timelines, or the worst sin of all: 11th hour surprises are deadly because they create doubt about both your competence and your credibility which generally can’t be repaired.

They’re proactive about ways to apply IT. If you’re a top-tier CIO, chances are you get up every morning and ask yourself “What can I do today to add value and make my company more successful?” Be among the 1 percent of CIOs who go to their CEO saying, “I’d like to recommend some process changes that could create competitive advantage/streamline distribution/improve customer service/reduce expenses.”

They don’t whine about reporting relationships. Seriously, folks, it doesn’t matter whether you report to the CEO, COO, CFO or CAO. If it bothers you, check your ego at the door. The only issue worth addressing is, “Do I have a seat at the table?” Beyond that, credibility is achieved through deeds, not org charts.

Their objectives seem to be in synch with the needs of the business. Unless you’re in the auto, music or mortgage industries, driving down costs is an objective, not the objective. Cost-effectiveness is. Providing systems that support growth and profits is. Providing perceived value is. Be a business partner, not the cheapest shop in town.

They manage my expectations. This may very well be Job One for all executives, but particularly for CIOs. It is disastrous to over-promise. Postpone gratification by fighting for goals that are realistic, and then exceeding expectations.

They’ve built a strong team that’s competent, customer-friendly and seems energized. You’re known by the company you keep, and great people reflect directly on your self-confidence and managerial competence. You would be amazed at how many executives in all disciplines are threatened by strong subordinates. Big mistake! Success breeds success. Build a shop that others want to join and in which your customers have confidence.

I can depend on them to be honest about necessary investments and timeliness. As the saying goes, pay me now or pay me later. Failure to own up to necessary investments only postpones the moment when you will be blamed for allowing the company’s infrastructure to fall behind. And, there are usually no quick fixes. If you can do what’s right and still reduce cost, great. If not, make the investment!

They give me confidence about business continuation. It’s more satisfying to buy a new TV than to upgrade your plumbing, until you’re standing in an inch of water. Deal with security, deal with disaster recovery, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t a priority.