When CIOs are really just IT managers

There has been much written about the role of the chief information officer and how to win a place at the boardroom table with other c-level executives. Many articles point out that it is an essential alignment given the critical role IT plays in helping modern organisations achieve their objectives.

The problem is that CIOs are sometimes viewed as operational managers running back office cost centers.

I’ve been a CIO and I believe there is another reason behind this disconnect, and it has nothing to do with an organisation’s awareness of the CIO or the person’s ability to build relationships.

Instead, it’s due to the mindset of other c-levels, particularly the CFO, COO, and CEO – and it’s to do with what they believe they need from the CIO and therefore IT.

There are still many senior executives – often through a lack of understanding – view IT as an operations function.

If you look at many of the advertisements for head of ICT positions, you’ll notice that the advertiser is really only looking for an IT manager. The hiring manager may have called the role “CIO” but the position is paying a salary well below that level.

So, how do you know what the role really entails? Apart from researching the role through your peers and contacts, there are three other indicators you should check.

Firstly, look at the organisation chart. If the CIO position is more than two levels removed from the CEO, then it’s certainly not an executive position but a middle management one.

Secondly, grab a copy of the job description and see if it is slanted towards technical skills and competency. If it is, then they want someone who is operationally-focused.

Thirdly, determine the organisation’s level of maturity. Companies that have progressed past data management and are now focusing on information and knowledge management will more likely be looking for a strategic, business-minded CIO.

Use the interview to better understand the job; prepare and have the right questions ready to get this understanding. Perhaps turn the interview around by asking the first question to get what you want out of the conversation.

Finding a position that is exactly right for you is very important. It’s an issue that was raised at a recent seminar for CIOs and it was clear through the discussion that many people were in this position.

A view put forward at the seminar was quite simple. If you are a strategically-focused CIO and you’re in an operational role, move on.

Why? Because you are unlikely to be successful and will spend time trying to work on strategy when all that the organisation wants is someone to ensure the availability of the systems and networks.

If you're stuck in a purely operational role and you long to be seen as a business enabler, you’re in the wrong job. Quit and go somewhere else where you can fulfill your ambitions.

Mark Coles is the former director of technology services and CIO at the Federal Court of Australia.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

Security vs. innovation: IT's trickiest balancing act