Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The CIO Recipe

Humankind has come up with a great way to pass on knowledge.  Since the majority of the world's population are conceptual/literal thinkers, we have made things simple.  Here are some examples:

  • You want to cook an apple pie - here is a recipe for that
  • You need to get somewhere in your car - put the address in your GPS
  • You want to get educated - depending on where you go there are very specific instructions
  • You want to get thinner - follow this diet plan and workout regimen
What all of those examples have in common is a set of instructions. If you want to achieve some type of goal, society and your predecessors have already laid down for you the knowledge on how to proceed.  That knowledge has been processed in such a way that you just have to follow instructions.  How well you follow those instructions will have an impact on your overall level of success but at least you know what needs to be done.

Career progression in the modern 1st world has followed a very similar path.  In general, corporations have defined the top jobs in their organizations.  Typically the structure looks like a pyramid where the top job is singular where the ones below it may have more than one supporting role.  Let's examine the top titles:
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • President
  • EVP of Sales
  • EVP of HR; sometimes referred to as CHRO
  • GM
  • CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)
  • CAO (Chief Administrative Office or Chief Accounting Officer)
Oh yes, there is also the CIO position, but we'll return to that in a bit.

 In each of those roles the progression paths are very similar.  Let's pick COO as an example.  This position is all about running the operations of the company.  So to get to the top, start at a line position performing a function that is probably labor-related.  Work up through continuing levels of supervision, then management, until finally (with a little luck and patronage) you get a chance at the top role.  The important thing is to become very good at operations and continue that until you rise to the very top.

For each of the other roles the same holds fairly true.  Get very good at the particular discipline and keep learning more about it as you progress further into management.  If you don't believe what I'm saying, consider these questions. (For argument sake, consider the CXO to be great at his/her role)

  1. Can your CFO understand and manage accounting and finance at least as well as the lower-level managers in place?
  2. Could your COO oversee supply chain, manufacturing, or some other fragment of the whole Ops organization if necessary?
  3. Could your EVP of sales go out and close on a regular deal - by herself?
  4. Could the Chief Human Resources Officer hire candidates or manage benefits at least as well as the director or manager in charge?
Some of you may so "No" out of spite but if we're honest, the answer to all of those questions is "Yes!".

So what about the CIO role?  This is the only role where being really good at managing a function within IT is likely to stall your career at the director level.  Within IT, up to the director position, you have to be very good at the work in your area - infrastructure, apps, project mgt, data management, security. 

However.....to be a good CIO you have to change 180 degrees.  If you try to be a "technical CIO" who operates from within the technology of the organization, you will be accused of "not knowing the business" - that's bad.  Therefore to become a CIO you have to become all about talent management, relationship stewarding, and the art of being a masterful communicator.

What I am saying should now be sinking in.  In every other company function, if you want to reach the top, you just have to get better and better at your function and carry that forward with ever developing "executive presence".  In IT, if you want to come up through the ranks to reach the top spot you better be adaptable.  For those who can successfully navigate the change, a CIO coming from a technical background must completely swap out their "tool kit".

Needless to say, this task is exceedingly hard to accomplish.  It requires a level of awareness and capability not required in other company functions.  It demands extreme adaptability and emotional intelligence.  And if you have all of that but not a good mentor, you are still likely to be doomed.

Normally I would try to include a large amount of supporting data.  Not so this time.  Just look around you and see if you can put a percentage to the number of companies, including your own, that always look outside when searching for new or replacement CIOs.  They typically look at the line management of IT and see them as only technical practioners.

There is a way out of this paradox.  Besides having a strong and capable mentor, CIO aspirants need to have some way to get the training they need and which I mentioned above.  I'm not thinking about Harvard or Gartner-type CIO "academies".  I am referring to a program where CIOs who have made that transition create a structured way to inculcate the same skills in others who have the right "clay" to make successful CIOs.  I'm not yet sure what that would be called.  The term "CIO Ludus" just doesn't have a good ring to it.

New CIOs are not likely to develop "organically" through a career in the various disciplines of IT.  They must be taken and re-forged into a whole new type of entity.  It can be done, but it won't happen through the mechanisms of modern corporations.

(If you are an aspirant and want to discuss more, give me a shout)

1 comment:

  1. I agree 100 percent with this.  I believe that successful CIO's, and IT managers in general, need to have a "chameleon" mentality. What I mean by that is they need to be able talk "tech" with their technical personnel. However, they also need to be able to understand and communicate business aspects of the company.