CIOs Who Want to Be Strategists Must First Get Operations in Order

Ann All

Don''t expect to be taken seriously as a strategist if you can't get your operational house in order. That's one of the points made by Louie Ehrlich, president of Chevron Information Technology Co. and CIO of Chevron Corp., in his post on the CIO Dashboard blog.


In it, he describes his appointment as CIO of Chevron's Global Downstream business in 2004, a position where he felt ready to be a "business strategist" CIO. One problem: Not all of the business stakeholders felt the same way. Writes Ehrlich:

The hard lesson I learned as a CIO looking to advance my role and serve as a business strategist is that one must recognize that there is likely to be a capability/expectation gap, and that this gap doesn't go away by itself. It's something that we as CIOs have to close.

I know from talking to other CIOs that Ehrlich wasn't the first-and won't be the last-to encounter this gap between IT capabilities and business expectations. Three factors create this gap, he writes:

  • State of the fundamentals of the IT environment. That gets back to the point I made in the first line of this post. If your IT environment isn't reliable and cost-effective, don't expect business leaders to seek your advice on more strategic uses of IT.
  • Capabilities and business knowledge of the IT function. Get some staff-or train your existing staff-to grasp business needs and goals and how IT can help address them. Without these kinds of employees supporting you, don't expect to be taken seriously as a strategist.
  • IT knowledge possessed by business leaders. Unlike the first two factors, this one isn't really under the direct control of the CIO since CIOs typically don't help select business leaders, Ehlrich says. But they can educate those folks by delivering business value, building relationships and communicating with them. He spends lots of time with members of Chevron's management committee.


Ehlrich's post made me remember a 2008 strategy+business article that profiled several CIOs it referred to as "practical visionaries." The article stuck in my mind because of a discussion I had with a coworker who strongly objected to that label. "I don't see what's so visionary about sitting in on some line-of-business meetings," he sputtered after reading my take on the article.


I, on the other hand, thought practical visionary was a pretty good description for CIOs who succeed by building on a foundation of solid operational performance to help craft effective business strategies for their companies. Without that foundation, a CIO's strategic aspirations will crumble.


It's also worth noting that not all organizations may want or need a strategic CIO.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 28, 2010 3:31 PM John Hughes John Hughes  says:

Right on, Ann!

Both are definitely needed, but stable operations is the critical first requirement.  Try talking to your CEO about stratic initiatives when customers are experiencing slow performance on your e-commerce site!  It's a non-starter.

And sitting in on line-of-business meetings is critical to strategic business-IT alignment as well.

Thanks for the important blog post Ann!

John Hughes

Author, Haunting the CEO


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