Breaking News

Tweet TWEET

CIOs Must Lead Outside of IT

Harvard Business Review

The CIO paradox is a set of contradictions that lies at the heart of IT leadership. Be strategic and operational. Stay secure and boost innovation. Adopt emerging technologies, while weighed down by the past. Many CIOs have buckled under the CIO paradox, while others have managed to be effective despite it. In working with these successful CIOs over the years, I have found that they all share a common set of practices, philosophies and approaches. We are in the midst of a computing renaissance, when all CIOs will need to raise their game and master this same set of practices. Herewith, three items that should have a permanent place on any CIO's "breaking the paradox" checklist.

Sell the foundation
Most large companies have underinvested in IT for decades. They've spent the bare minimum, and that's been fine, since IT has had to function merely as a "keep the lights on" necessity. As long as the mainframe systems aren't broken, let's not fix them. Today, however, technology innovation is creating a drastic change — across all major industries — in the way customers want to interact with their suppliers. Companies can no longer get away with treating IT as a commodity. These companies face a technical debt, and it's time to pay up.

Most CIOs find it relatively easy to convince an executive team to invest in a technology that increases near-term revenue. They find it considerably harder to ask their colleagues to invest in a major infrastructure upgrade that will take 12 months or more before delivering direct business benefit. But all CIOs need to find a way to convince their peers that without these infrastructure investments, they will be mortgaging their company's future. Through visuals, storytelling, and metaphors that resonate with the company's business leaders, CIOs must develop the skill of showing their stakeholders that foundational investments are the table stakes of innovation. If they do not, they will get crushed between the rock and hard-place of legacy technologies and business demand.

Grow blended executives
The companies that have underinvested in IT have also underinvested in IT talent. IT leaders are a unique breed, and they need to possess a heady brew of business, technology, and interpersonal skills. High-performing IT organizations appoint executives to sit at the intersection of business areas and the IT function, helping business leaders to shape their IT strategies and marshaling a technology team to deliver against that demand. Ideally, these "business relationship executives" would have two heads: one for business and one for technology. Since cloning is still an imperfect science — and these gorgeously blended executives are in short supply in the talent market — companies will need to grow their own.

The most effective approach to developing blended executives is to develop a program that rotates IT people into business roles, and business people into IT. But regardless of which approach companies take, they need to start now. We are in the midst of war for IT talent, and companies that always have to go outside for their IT leaders, are at a disadvantage. A far better strategy is to take the people that they have and develop them into blended executives. You know you are on the right track when you walk into a business unit meeting, and from the dialogue taking place, you cannot easily distinguish the IT person from everyone else.

Reach beyond IT
The IT function is not easy to manage. IT is highly strategic, intensely operational, hard to staff and extremely expensive. CIOs who are successful in running IT tend to develop expertise in important areas including project management, continuous improvement, people development, M&A, and strategic planning. These disciplines are critical to every other department in the company. CIOs who want to be effective in the future will extend their leadership and expertise beyond the IT function. They will set up enterprise project management offices; they will take the reigns as their company's continuous improvement champion; they will absorb HR and legal and procurement, along with IT, into a new Chief Shared Services Officer role. They will step out of their IT boxes because they know it is good for the company. They will not wait to be asked.

With cloud, mobility, consumerization, and big data, the CIO paradox is not disappearing; it is growing stronger. The contradictory forces that define IT are getting more acute, and CIOs will work harder than ever to perform. Those who are already struggling under the paradox will continue to struggle. But those who can rise to the occasion, break the paradox, and deliver value in our new technology marketplace will secure themselves a place of leadership in what promises to be an exciting new era.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.