An Inside Look at One CEO’s Working Relationship with His CIO

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Third-Quarter IT Reality Check -- Budgets, Hiring, Trends

Earlier this week, I wrote about the concept of the hybrid CIO as championed by Paul Lidsky, president and CEO of Datalink, a cloud services provider in Eden Prairie, Minn. But there’s more to the story: how Lidsky works with his own CIO, and where that CIO fits in Datalink’s corporate hierarchy.

Datalink’s CIO, Dave Brady, joined the company in March of last year, following the departure two months earlier of Tom Sylvester, who had been the company’s CIO for more than a decade. I opened this portion of my conversation with Lidsky by asking him to identify the biggest challenges the company faced in working through that CIO transition. Lidsky said those challenges centered around the overarching topic of our conversation, which was the changing role and responsibilities of the CIO:

Dave was hired with all those things in mind. He was hired to be a business partner to the C-suite—to myself, to the CFO, to the COO—a true business partner. It involved helping us operate the company in a way that would support and complement our growth strategy. So I think the biggest challenge was the company actually realizing that, and working with a CIO who had that charter. Tom’s charter was much more the traditional CIO. Today, Dave’s charter includes much greater integration of systems, and a much greater integration of IT and strategy than it did prior to his arrival. So the biggest challenge has been the company learning how to leverage that, and how to work in that construct.

I asked Lidsky if he would characterize Brady as a hybrid CIO, and he said he would:

Partially because that’s the way he thinks, and partially because that’s how I choose to use his role in the company. That raises an important point: The CEO sets the strategy for a corporation. If you see IT as a strategic asset, then you’re going to help your CIO evolve to this hybrid model. That’s part of my role with respect to Dave: Hire the right person with the right set of skills, and the right attitude about the role of IT, and give that person the responsibility to really become that hybrid CIO by including him in the types of discussions that we’ve been talking about.

I asked Lidsky where Brady falls in the company hierarchy, and he explained it this way:

On paper, he reports with a solid line to the CFO, and a dotted line to me. What that means from an operational perspective is that while Dave reports to the CFO, the work he does in support of our growth strategy, he does directly with me. So I’m not involved in the daily care of our systems. I’m involved in how IT can support and further my growth objectives. So whenever we have a discussion about a growth strategy, or a better way to reach our customers, or a way for the company to be more efficient, all of those things are topics of interest to me in seeing our strategy executed properly. Dave works directly with me on all of that. … In my mind, he certainly operates as an SVP. Hierarchically, on paper, he is one level below the C-suite, but I treat him as a member of the C-suite.

If all of that seems a little convoluted, Lidsky agreed that it is. He explained the reason for it this way:

We hired [Brady] in a traditional hierarchical role at the time. When Tom left the company, we were in the middle of a deployment of our back-office financial systems. So that was Dave’s overriding responsibility—for the better part of his first year, almost all of his days were spent putting that ERP system into place. Because of that, when he came into the organization, he filled the same spot that Tom had, which was a role that reported to the CFO. As that system came up to speed, and Dave’s availability became greater, I began moving him into strategic discussions. We didn’t change his hierarchical position on paper, but we changed it in terms of how the company views him, and of how the C-suite views him. So he has become an active advisor to the C-suite, which includes myself, the COO, and obviously the CFO. We just never moved him on paper.

That, of course, begged the question of why the move was never made on paper. Lidsky said it was a simple matter of having focused more on Brady’s role in the company, rather than on where he fit in on the org chart:

In some ways, it speaks more roundly to the company that he has the role he has with me, even though on paper he doesn’t report directly to me. It’s not to say that one day we won’t change that. But it’s very obvious, when the CIO reports to someone other than the CEO, but the CEO and the CIO are seen working, talking, and presenting together, it becomes very obvious that the CIO has a special role. In the prioritization of all the things we had to do, moving him around on the org chart was far less important to me than making sure that he had the role I wanted him to have, and that the company knew that. That’s where I focused my time. Because, quite honestly, there are plenty of CIOs who report directly to the CEO, who are not, in my mind, modern-day CIOs—not hybrid CIOs. So I focused far more of my time and attention on elevating the role in the company, and the responsibility that went with that, independently of where it reported.

By the way, subsequent to my conversation with Lidsky, I had the opportunity to speak at length with Brady, as well. I’ll cover his perspective on all of this in a forthcoming post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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