CIOs need to talk

CIOs that don’t communicate and promote themselves might end up being undervalued by leaders

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“Some CIOs are happy just to worry about the technology. Not every industry, or individual enterprise, wants its CIOs to have broader ambitions,” says Stephen P. Kaufman, ex-Arrow Electronics CEO and now a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.

In some businesses, IT is a supporting rather than a driving function, he argues, so the CIO might not be asked to help set strategy.

“But they’d better be in the room and listening carefully as it is discussed and shaped,” he warns. “On the other hand, however, some employers expect much more of their CIO. When the IT infrastructure can create a competitive advantage, the CIO has a significant role to play and will be expected to define the IT capability.”

When the CIO of American Airlines pioneered the new fare structure that won it signficant chunks of new business, he could never have achieved this innovation if he’d been jumping through hoops at the behest of some uppity security worrier.

He alone knew what technology was capable of, and how the application could be applied to the airline. And consequently the airline broke new ground with a system that dynamically set fares based on flight departure and arrival times, type of ticket and closeness to flight time.

In Kaufman’s era, the CIO had time to develop a new project. These days that’s rarely possible. “Boards that confine the CIO to the datacentre to minimise costs will similarly find their companies obsolete,” he predicts. However, the variable impressions of the CIO prompts the question of how you upgrade perceptions of the CIO role.

Expert opinion

You need to learn to be good at office politics, advises one prominent CIO, or you’ll never prove your strategic value. As assistant to the chief executive on Birmingham City Council’s executive committee on transformation, Glyn Evans answers to more stakeholders than most CIOs could shake a stick at. But he has managed to gain a deep engagement with many of them. “We [the council] associate IT with business change,” he says, despite the fact that, in his words, he has to visit a lot of senior managers who used to spend their entire meeting grumbling about their PCs.

How did Evans achieve this? “We outsourced a lot of the IT operations, but it’s also important to manage expectations. You must make people realise that no system is ever going to be perfect.” Evans is a master politician, as you would expect of the chairman of influential public-sector group Socitm (the Society of Information Technology Management). As a consequence, he speaks the language of his constituents and reflects their concerns effectively. “When you speak to the head of refuse collection, you don’t talk in terms of bin collection. These days you say ‘recycling’,” he advises.

As a breed, CIOs probably aren’t natural politicians. But whatever job you do, it’s vital that you remind people why you’re important, says Lesley Everett, a personal development coach. Everett runs workshops to help professional people who don’t have an instinct for self-promotion.

Engineers and technologists are frequent clients. It’s especially important to work on ‘raising your brand’ in professions that few people really understand. Who knows what a CIO does? Many CIOs might be pushed to give a good answer. You may not want to be a ‘business strategy leader’, whatever that is, but you don’t want to hide your light under a bushel. Which, unfortunately, is what many technically-minded people do.

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