The Importance of a Well-Rounded CIO

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Seven Major CEO Concerns CIOs Should Address

Understand the concerns of CEOs and the implications they may have on IT.

A recent silicon.com piece implies that CIOs should become more business-savvy as adoption of cloud computing grows, since "with the rise of the cloud and stronger procurement functions, some organizations may ask whether they really need an IT function." I think this is unfortunate.


First, if any organizations decide to actually eliminate IT and trust the procurement function to put everything in the cloud, I think they'll regret it (and sooner, not later). Procuring cloud services isn't as easy as procuring printer paper, PCs or other office goods.


Second, I hate to think any CIOs would need a perceived career threat to inspire them to become more attuned to business needs. The article quotes several CIOs, all of whom make the point that it's important for CIOs to leave their technology comfort zones and learn more about the broader business. I think this is obvious to the point of ridiculousness.


I do appreciate a bit of good advice shared by Visa Europe CIO Steve Chambers, who took time out from his IT career track to assume executive positions in sales and marketing. He says:

As my career moved on, I knew I wanted to be a blue-chip CIO or CEO. I took time out from IT and spent two years running marketing and two years running sales. Not for a second would I say that I'm good at either and I have no desire to work in either area again. But it is crucial you have a sense of empathy towards what other people in the business face.

Smart. Back in September I wrote about companies like Johnson & Johnson, W.W. Grainger and Xerox, that are making it easy for folks to move from IT roles to business roles and back. The result: a work force of professionals with a highly desirable blend of IT and business skills.


As I wrote, citing a Computerworld article, W.W. Grainger CIO Tim Ferrarell's tenure at the company includes stints in merchandising, product management, marketing and strategy. Grainger's CEO, Jim Ryan, is a former CIO, a transition still seen as unusual at most companies. At Xerox, the former head of IT architecture now manages the company's global supply chain. (No doubt using the IT architect's ability to recognize and optimize interrelationships.)


In another post from December, I discussed the CIO's responsibility to help create future IT leaders. In an interview with strategy+business, Charles Feld, former CIO for Frito-Lay, founder of the Feld Group consultancy and author of "Blind Spot: A Leader's Guide to IT-Enabled Business Transformation," listed some of the qualities these new leaders will need:

... versatile, multidisciplinary, multicultural leaders who can think strategically about systems and patterns and who can take leadership of an organization and drive execution.

Most companies lack the necessary emphasis on this kind of professional development, Feld added:

In most companies, people come into the IT function and stay there for 20 years, as opposed to being moved about and given different experiences and a wider aperture.

As an example of a well-rounded leader, Feld mentions Tom Nealon, the CIO of JCPenney, and former CIO of Southwest Airlines and of Frito-Lay. In his first decade at Frito-Lay, Nealon worked in computer operations, in systems development and in systems engineering before doing a stint in the financial planning department. Since he'd been a user, said Feld, Nealon knew why IT frustrates people. Since he'd been in operations, he knew what a poorly-designed system looks like, and what to do when you get a call in the middle of the night and there's no documentation.


The silicon.com article suggests that "moving into a business-focused role really is a possibility for outcome-oriented CIOs in receptive organizations." The really tricky part, of course, comes when organizations are not receptive. Visa Europe's Steve Chambers touches on this, saying:

A business that looks at the CIO as a supplier will not get the best from their IT department. A broad stakeholder contribution is essential to building great IT. If IT is not seen as an equal, the business will lose potential value.

The right CIO may be able to overcome skepticism at companies where the IT function is not as highly regarded as other business functions. But it certainly won't be easy.