More than 12 years ago, I started asking CIOs: “When you started your new job, what did you inherit?” At least 90% of the time, the answer was: “A mess. The IT organization was late and over budget on almost every project; there was no governance or project-management discipline; the business had no faith in IT.”

Today I get the same response the same percentage of the time.

How can this be? Why aren’t CIOs getting better at their job? Is there something so fundamentally problematic about the relationship between IT and the business that IT leadership success is unachievable? Whatever the answer, at most companies the CIO role is a revolving door. And the likely consequence is that your IT organization is confused and demoralized, your company’s IT strategy is never fully executed, and you don’t enjoy any real ROI for your IT spend.

This is a tough problem, but as legions of failed dieters will tell you, “You have to keep trying.” Here’s one big idea: know what you are looking for in a CIO and know what questions to ask the candidate.

IBM recently released its biannual IBM Global Chief Information Officer Study, which defines four “CIO Mandates” based on what companies think they want and need from IT. Depending upon that mandate, here are questions you should ask your prospective CIO.

1. Leverage: You’re looking for a CIO to provide basic lights-on capabilities reliably and cost effectively. Fortunately, these CIOs are not that hard to find. They will have come up through the IT organization and typically are happy reporting to the CFO.

Interview questions:
How will you enhance relationships and improve communication throughout the organization?
What is your plan to get, keep, and develop people with the IT and business skills your team needs most?
How many disparate architectures does your current organization have, and why?
How have you controlled costs by rationalizing your hardware and application portfolios?
How do your dashboards measure the value of IT in terms of business benefits?

2. Expand: Are you looking for a CIO who can streamline operations and bring new IT capabilities to the business? These CIOs will need to possess strong change-management and relationship-building skills. They typically report to the CFO but spend more time with the business.

Interview questions:
What new tools have you implemented to help the business, and what was the ROI?
How do you involve your internal customers in planning and decision making?
What is your plan to engage partners to outsource IT functions?
Which inefficient processes can you eliminate or improve to increase customer satisfaction?
How do you work with internal customers to ensure that dashboards measure enterprisewide key performance indicators?

3. Transform: If you want your IT to be transformational, your CIO will have to spend time outside the walls of the business to investigate solutions to improve the company’s competitive position. Finding these CIOs is tough. You should look within your own industry and identify candidates who have functional experience outside IT. These CIOs most likely will report to the CEO or COO.

Interview questions:
What are your plans to simplify the customer experience? What new products and services will increase functionality, use, and satisfaction?
Does your dashboard design include real-time metrics such as internal and external customer-satisfaction levels, end-user time savings, and talent retention?
Are you introducing social media and collaboration capabilities to customers and partners, as well as to internal clients?
How do you take advantage of Big Data and new IT capabilities to achieve real-time insights?
In what new ways are you exploiting leading-edge analytical skills and technology?

4. Pioneer: You want to use IT to innovate and change your business dramatically. You’ll need to reengineer products in a way that will have a direct impact on the revenue stream. CIOs who can help with that are hard to find. The best can manage a P&L and lead IT as a support function. They will not be effective unless they are full-fledged members of the executive team.

Interview questions:
What channels will you use to share ideas to help create successful new products?
How will you leverage social media and business intelligence to spot trends that present new customer opportunities?
What are you doing to integrate disparate technologies for the benefit of your organization, customers, value chain, and beyond?
How can you develop the talent to apply predictive intelligence to radically change your business model, products, or industry?
How will you design dynamic dashboards that leverage real-time data and predictive analytics?

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to hire a spender when it needs a saver, or an operations ace when it needs a change agent. Knowing what you want is more than half the battle.

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates (Martha@hellersearch.com) and a contributing editor to CIO magazine.

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