Defining the New CIO Role: More Business Leader, Less “Head of IT”

By June 21, 2011Uncategorized

This isn’t my first blog post to ponder this question (“Dear Mr. CIO…”), and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I experienced something this past week that has me thinking about the answer from a new perspective.

I’ll begin by stating that I have aspired to be a CIO since the start of my career in IT. In many ways it is my career path dream to be a CIO who is actively engaged in the business as a technologist who can present relevant data to the rest of upper management to aid in quick and informed business decisions which drive revenue and profitability.

I have written previously about the idea that most CIO’s are in fact Infrastructure Officers, not Information Officers, and have generated some interesting discussion from this concept. I love technology, I love information analysis, and I think that if approached properly the CIO position can be the most critical of any executive management team.

Breaking with the popular CIO mold was a gentleman holding this title whom I met last week. Actually, he holds the dual title of CIO and CFO. He is technically adept, but isn’t a nuts and bolts geek towards all of the features and minute details of the technology his organization uses—he employs people he trusts to do that for him.

Here in lies his true power: he actually trusts these employees, empowers them and expects them to do the same. He doesn’t make technology decisions without consulting his IT team and receiving full input from them. I can’t tell you how many CIO’s I’ve worked with who SAY they do that, but a lunch meeting with a vendor can unravel months of work by his or her team and destroy a well thought out design with one that was conceived to push a product (and in the spirit of disclosure, yes, I’ve unraveled my fair share of competitor’s designs, but I like to think I put an equal amount of effort into my design at least).

I’ve seen a few CxO and VP level folks do this before, and while learning to recruit, hire, and retain talent you can truly trust is a skill more managers should learn and cherish, it wasn’t all that unique. What really stood out to me was his understanding of the “Information” component in the CIO title. I had a great conversation with him about how he is regularly looking to find ways of analyzing his businesses data to better improve their overall product. It was very, very refreshing. This CIO cares about the technology used under his direction and absolutely does not want his team skimping or being short-changed with technology that makes their jobs harder.

At the end of the day, though, if they can do what they need to do with a hamster in a wheel, and still provide business information to analyze and provide for use to the rest of the executive team, this particular CIO doesn’t get tied up with those ins and outs. He empowers and provides the right amount of resources to his team to provide a robust infrastructure to the business, and then he actually USES it.

So that got me thinking about whether this long standing pattern of assuming a person with a CIS degree is the best person to run IT is a good assumption. I’ve always thought it was based on my view of what a CIO should be doing for the business, but after talking with this CFO, I’m not so sure.

It may be that a better way to approach this is to put a real business person in the role, but insure that they leave technology decisions to a trusted technologist, and learn some of the technical details. That way, they come from a business perspective and provide a more business oriented approach to IT decision making instead of a technological one. That wouldn’t preclude someone in IT from climbing the ladder to the CIO role, of course. It just requires they understand what their business really does and what it needs as a pre-requisite to attaining the role. It’s a delicate balance, because if you’ve got a strictly non-technical person in that position, you could completely hamstring your IT staff without realizing it until they’ve all quit, which I’ve seen happen in other organizations.

I’m pretty excited about working with this individual further to see how he deals with some other issues around data mining and presentation. As I learn more I’ll share what I can.  I’d be interested in whether your organization would (or has) considered a non-technical person in the CIO role and your thoughts on the matter.

Photo Credit: Chandra Marsono via Flickr