Do CIOs Need the Help of a Chief Strategy Officer?

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Seven Evolving Leadership Qualities for the Twenty-First Century

A CIO is nothing if not the chief strategy officer for IT. That being the case, what happens when the company hires someone to fill a corporate chief strategy officer (CSO) role, as increasing numbers of companies are doing?

I discussed that issue earlier this week with Patrick J. Stroh, a Prior Lake, Minn.-based business consultant and author of the new book, “Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win!” Stroh discussed the evolution of the CSO role in his book, and he shared some valuable insights on its function.

Among the corporations that have created a CSO position are some high-profile technology companies, including Oracle, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks and Cognos. I mentioned to Stroh that IT is such a fundamental element of corporate strategy, so I can see the potential for a clash between the CSO and the CIO. I asked him what his advice would be for CIOs to avoid that clash, and to foster a relationship that benefits the company. He said with the right CIO on board, a company might not even need a CSO:


In my book, I suggest that the first thing a CEO should do as a takeaway is take out his org chart, and consider who’s carrying out CSO responsibilities. So if I have a very strategic, very senior CIO, and he’s filling a lot of the role, I might not need a CSO. The question is, who is fulfilling the role of chief strategy officer? While everybody across the board should be doing some business development and execution of strategy, who’s facilitating it all? In some companies, that could absolutely be the CIO. I’ll give you a good example of that. When I was at UnitedHealth Group, the corporate CIO there, John Santelli, was a very significant strategist, and would help tie together the business plans of multiple divisions.

I noted that other C-level officers are responsible for developing and executing strategy in their respective areas, to one degree or another, and that it seems to me this could be a turf battle waiting to happen, with these C-level officers seeing the CSO as getting in the way. I asked Stroh if I had identified a real-world problem, or if I was tilting at windmills. He said I was absolutely spot-on:

You said two key words, and I’m going to give you a third one. You said other leaders should be responsible for developing and executing strategy, and I one million percent agree with you. The CSO is not responsible solely for developing and executing, but for facilitating. You were hitting on something really key there. Because if the CSO is solely responsible for putting strategy in place, then he’s a scapegoat, or he can be. The CSO is just the ringleader, the facilitator, to help bring it all together.

I told Stroh that no matter how you slice it, it just seems likely that there would be some stepping on toes in this scenario. I asked him how a turf battle can be avoided, and he said it has a lot to do with the company’s organizational structure:

If this position is reporting to the president or CEO, and he’s been an important player who facilitates business strategy, and helps bring resources to the table to help other functional areas put together their competitive assessments, product roadmaps, and so forth, then it’s a win-win. If he comes in iron-fisted, and doesn’t have a lot of EQ [emotional intelligence], in his background to help build the relationship, yeah, that can be really uncomfortable. So I would say when you talk about art vs. science, that’s the art of being smart, and having high EQ, so you build the relationship and you’re not coming in and stomping on people.

It was interesting that Stroh mentioned emotional intelligence. I told him I had recently interviewed Matt Tenney, a leadership consultant who expressed the view that IT people tend to have a relatively low level of emotional intelligence. I asked Stroh if he would agree with that, and he couched his response in the recognition that it was a stereotype:

I would bifurcate it a little bit. We’re stereotyping, but if you were to put me in a corner and make me answer that question, I would say you might see that more on the infrastructure side of the house, vs. the application development side. All the IT folks that I’ve ever worked with on the app development side, usually are pretty damn savvy on relationships, because they know finance might need this, ops might need that. So I would disagree from that standpoint. On the technology side, those guys are so deep into the technical aspect, that there’s probably less relationship-building. They just know what they need to do, and go out and build it.

Stroh also shed an informative light on where the CSO fits in a company’s organizational structure, and the qualities that make a successful CSO. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.



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