Your CIO, Your Problem

Knowing what troubles your CIO could be a first step toward building what could be a more-productive relationship.
Martha HellerOctober 7, 2011

Why do CFOs so often wonder if the bang will be worth their IT investment buck? 

Why does a visit to IT typically involve hitting the “B” on the elevator or driving to another building? 

Why do you have a harder time hiring, managing, and relating to your CIO than to any other executive?  

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I don’t have a definitive answer to any of these questions, but I do know that there is (and has long been) a fundamental disconnect between IT and the business that keeps most companies from capitalizing on all that technology can do for them.  I think of this disconnect as a set of opposing forces that define the role of technology leadership, a paradox in which CIOs are caught.

I’ve discussed this paradox (the conflict between what’s expected of CIOs and what they can and are allowed to do) across the country with CIOs in groups both large and small.  From time to time, a CIO will encourage the room to “stop whining and accept that this is your job,” but more often than not the paradox resonates, and a pretty intense discussion ensues.

Why should CFOs care about their CIOs’ problems? Knowing what troubles your CIO could be a first step toward building what could be a beautiful, or at least a more productive, relationship.

CIOs are hired to be strategic, but spend most of their time in the weeds.
When I ask CIOs to pick the most pernicious aspect of the paradox, this is the one they select.  With infrastructure often sucking up 80% of their IT budget, it’s no wonder they have difficulty getting to the value-added projects.  There’s no easy solution to the tension between strategic expectations and operational exigencies, but outsourcing much of what is a commodity, and focusing on competitive differentiators, is a good place to start. With cloud computing, this is becoming increasingly reasonable strategically and operationally, in terms of both technology and costs.

CIOs are stewards of risk mitigation and cost containment, yet they need to drive innovation.
How do you build a culture in which you both tightly control costs yet allow for the failures that everyone knows come with innovation?  How do you maintain a locked-down, high-security armored tank of an infrastructure while allowing for the openness that experimentation requires?  The problem of securing an organization’s data while supporting the innovation that springs from creative employees demanding to use their own devices, build their own applications, and choose their own platforms grows more intense by the day.

Technology is a long-term investment, but the company thinks in quarters.
As a Fortune 500 CIO said to me recently, “Ten years ago, we had to convince the purchasing group that automating reverse auctions was better than paper RFPs, and that took time. Today, you don’t have to convince the business of anything. They assume it will work and they want the payout within a quarter.”  While CIOs face constrained budgets, the demands on technology only increase. This paradox has plagued the IT organization for 30 years and is heating up now that software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors increasingly are selling directly to business leaders, promising quick return on investment. Then it falls to the CIO to make sure these apps integrate smoothly and securely with the organization’s core systems.

IT pervades and serves every part of the business, yet the IT organization is often removed from it.
You would think the word and would function as a connector, a word that implies togetherness.  Yet the phrase “IT and the business” doesn’t work that way. Rather, it connotes separateness and difference, creating an us-versus-them culture that belies the actual embeddedness of IT.  The language people use to describe a group has a powerful impact on how it’s perceived. If they can manage it, CFOs should stop using that phrase themselves and encourage others to drop it from their lexicon. But changing language is only one step: today, CIOs are hiring “business relationship executives” in the hope of eliminating a useless distinction and a distracting divide.

CIOs are accountable for project success, but the business has to own the project.
Most CIOs proudly proclaim that in their organization, “there are no IT projects, only business projects.”  This is a wonderful sentiment, but it often becomes a problem during  the last mile when the business has to pony up resources to complete an IT implementation.  As a CIO recently asked, “How do you drive something you can’t really own? If you drive it yourself, people will say, ‘Why is this guy doing things to us?’” So, yes, all IT projects should be business projects, but the business needs to be a good-faith partner with IT.

The best CIOs have figured out how to manage up, around, and through these contradictions, but it’s harder without the awareness and support of an enlightened CFO and executive committee. By understanding the challenges your CIO is up against, you may just be able to turn a report into a partner. Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

 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.