Advice for New CIOs: Direct Traffic or Risk Getting Run Over

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    Of all the officers in the C-suite, guess which one tends to have the shortest tenure. You nailed it: the CIO. To lengthen that tenure, the CIO needs to position himself as the “architect of innovation.”

    That was one of the key findings in the new report, “Go Live on Day One: The Path to Success as a New CIO,” released by Accenture Strategy. I had the opportunity to discuss the report with Diana Bersohn, managing director of Accenture Strategy, and I asked her to what she would attribute the finding that CIOs tend to have the shortest tenure in the C-Suite, and what CIOs can do to change that. She said every business is striving to become a digital business, which is pushing enterprises to change at breakneck speeds. And for too long, IT has been viewed as a back-office organization that supports the enterprise, as opposed to being a front-line value driver:

    New digital priorities are placing IT at the heart of every industry and every enterprise. Thus the role of the CIO has changed from providing IT service, to using IT to meet the future needs of the business. The CIO plays a critical role to ensure the alignment of the business and technology strategy, while continuing to drive the efficiency and effectiveness of the IT function. We have found successful CIOs who experience long tenures are tuned into the business priorities and opportunities for their company, and partner exceptionally well with their peers in the business to map out a technology-powered vision that can energize and galvanize senior leadership and the rest of the organization behind them. The CIO needs to light the way forward with innovative ideas and actionable plans that allow them to show short-term results, as well as long-term. It comes down to the ability of the CIO to deliver business outcomes and enterprise resiliency. Doing so will allow the CIO to find their rightful seat in top management, and secure their future in the enterprise.

    I asked Bersohn how she would characterize the difference between the challenges facing a seasoned CIO who takes that position at a new employer, and one who is promoted into that role internally. She said both bring their own unique set of knowledge, expertise and experiences to the role.

    A seasoned CIO brings both an understanding of how to work with the C-suite and also the lessons learned from having led an IT organization, including strategy, leadership, governance, structure, talent and investment. What the seasoned CIO would lack, of course, is the in-depth knowledge of the new enterprise, its business direction and culture, which is where an individual who was promoted from within would have an edge.

    However, the individual promoted from within the business would have a gap to close in terms of their leadership capabilities, even if there was a strong mentoring/succession plan in place. In either case, what is critical is that the new CIO is willing to think and act in new and different ways, and also brings a business outcome orientation to their role.

    What happens more frequently, is the appointment of a former business leader into a CIO role—in this case the “new CIO” brings with him/her an understanding of the business priorities and how to effectively communicate with the business, but doesn’t always have the depth of technology expertise to effectively drive innovation. Therefore such a CIO needs to populate his/her leadership team with strong technology and innovation leaders to complement his/her business acumen.


    Not surprisingly, the Accenture Strategy study also found that IT spending decisions are increasingly being made outside of the CIO’s control. I told Bersohn that my feeling is that the genie is out of that particular bottle, and that’s not going to change. Bersohn has a more nuanced view:

    Given the nature of digital business transformation, the need for specialized solutions will continue to grow, whether it’s for finance, human resources, supply chain, manufacturing, marketing or across the entire enterprise value chain. While we expect the innovation to continue to take place within the business, CIOs have the technological understanding of the business that should put them in a prime position to serve as the glue across the value chain of the enterprise that harnesses and helps orchestrate the innovation across both business and technology.

    It truly is their time to put their skills, experience and knowledge to the test. Demonstrating their prowess, and working collaboratively with their peers who recognize the opportunity that lies ahead with digital, CIOs need to move quickly to capitalize on it. As for strategic IT investments, we see some very different models coming into play as technology becomes more pervasive and part of the fabric of the enterprise and its broader ecosystem. We think the CIO will be less the owner of the IT investment, and more a steward and influencer of smart, timely, innovative IT investments across the business.

    Finally, I asked Bersohn what positions the most successful CIOs typically hold before they assume the CIO position, and how that might change in the future. Her response:

    CIOs today have strong technology and business backgrounds, and of course they typically have spent a good amount of time in the technology trenches. Increasingly, we are seeing CIOs emerge from roles in strategy or operations, or from business line lead roles. As we look at technology-powered companies and startups, we expect to see more and more CIOs moving from lateral roles, such as the chief technology officer or chief digital officer roles.

    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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