Workplace Issues

What CIOs Want From CFOs

You can listen to your CIO, or you can ignore her. After all, how important &spamp;#8212; really &spamp;#8212; is IT to your business?
Martha HellerJanuary 23, 2012

If you’re like me, you’re perfect. Everyone who works for and with you respects you and admires your judgment, your approach, and the decisions you make. So my advice to you is: keep doing exactly what you’re doing. And you can skip the following advice CIOs have for their CFOs, and their suggestions for how they might change.

Stop playing favorites. A CIO from a consumer packaged-goods company put it this way: “The checkbook is wide open if we’re talking about a finance project, but if it’s for any other function, the details are put under the microscope. When we were looking to put in a new inventory management system, I had to present the budget to three separate groups, but when we needed funding for a new accounting tool, I didn’t even have to go to the meeting.”

CIOs have to support manufacturing, engineering, human resources, finance, and every other function in the business. But, according to many CIOs, “The CFO can make IT less effective by overemphasizing the areas that support finance. That’s why CIOs usually want to work for the CEO. They have a more balanced view.” 

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As CFO, you need to take off your IT customer hat and put on your corporate officer hat if you want to leverage IT to drive value across the business.

Have a little faith. “My CFO is always asking me, ‘Why does it take so much money to run this system?’ He refuses to understand the complexity of what it takes to deliver IT,” says a CIO in the hospitality business. “If a technology investment can’t show an immediate ROI, he zones out. But it’s my job to make sure that we’re spending the right IT dollars on the right things. If he doesn’t understand the complexities of IT processes, he has to trust that I do.” Or, as another CIO put it, “My CFO continually challenges me on my lights-on budget and expects me to justify why I need a new router. Is that a conversation we really need to have? Is it really necessary for me to explain how a router works and why we need a new one?”

Micromanaging your CIO diverts attention from strategic issues. If you can’t trust your CIO on the small, lights-on stuff, how can you trust her on the big, value-added stuff? You can’t. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, get yourself a new CIO.

Change the way you measure IT. “There’s a total disconnect between the way we think in IT and the way finance thinks,” says a CIO in manufacturing. “CFOs want control over costs, and they want IT to be in one bucket so they can measure it easily. But IT is embedded in every organization and every department and every budget, not just one. CFOs need to learn to measure IT differently than other business budget lines.” Another CIO adds, “The CFO’s lot in life is to manage to the bottom line. But because IT requires such a long term investment, it is often given the short end of the stick until something really bad happens. CFOs need to accept the fact that the need to invest in upgrading infrastructure is continuous.”

Have IT’s back.Shadow IT,” in which business leaders hire their own technology people and implement their own applications outside the governance of the IT department, has been a minor nuisance to CIOs for years. But with the growth of software-as-a-service, business leaders are now able to implement new technologies more easily than ever. They do it with the wave of a credit card and with no oversight by IT. The CIO is then left to deal with the inevitable integration and security issues that arise, in addition to the ire of those business leaders who may feel thwarted as the CIO tries to slow the train in order to do her job. As CFO, you need to understand the risks that arise when business leaders take IT into their own hands and help your CIO rein in the rogues. This is a spending issue (those credit-card swipes can mount up) as well as security and performance issues, and all that falls within the CFO’s natural purview.

Be a change agent. A CIO in the automotive industry bemoans the fact that he “cannot get the CFO to mandate transformation in her own department. We need to upgrade our tax and treasury systems, but the people in that group are resistant and the CFO is no help. If she would support the project, we could make some real improvements in that part of the business.”

The consensus among all the CIOs with whom I’ve spoken is that IT is oriented toward change and finance is all about consistency. Once something is locked down, finance is loath to change it. That may make for sound cost management, but it can be a barrier to innovation.

As I said, if you’re like me and you’re doing a great job, why should you give much credence to what your CIO thinks? After all, IT isn’t that important to the success of your business. Is it?

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates, a CIO and senior IT executive recruiting firm, and a contributing editor to CIO magazine. Follow Martha on twitter: @marthaheller.

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