It doesn’t matter which conference you go to, or who is the person at the discussion’s other end — Whenever the CIO’s evolution is examined, the other person always has a view on what should be a CIO’s next role. Multiple propositions get discussed, including that of the COO and CEO. Sometimes, the lateral inclusions are in supply chain, logistics or human resources, rarely in finance or marketing. But is the CIO an interim position that has to evolve into some other role? Why can’t CIOs be happy being good CIOs?
A few weeks back, a reporter called me. She said that I was one of the few people she knew who was happy being a CIO. She had not come across too many such people within her contact book despite having hundreds of listed CIOs. So this discussion continued on whether a CIO should necessarily move on to another role. If yes, which one?
I wondered a bit as she continued her excited chatter — what’s wrong in being a CIO, and that too a good one! Why is the world interested in my evolution to another CXO’s role (as if other CXOs would be extremely delighted to fill in my shoes)?
Apart from technology expertise, CIOs by virtue of providing technology enabled systems and processes across the enterprise have unparalleled visibility in terms of what happens across each function. They are expected to “know” the business, as well as understand the domain specific challenges and opportunities. Such a knowledge level is essential to provide new technology solutions, whether it’s marketing, sales, warehousing, finance or any other. Typically, this gets referred to as the wonderful world of “IT-business alignment”. Such opportunities give them an advantage over others from the CXO domain who may not have this opportunity (or the interest). Best of all, other CXOs do not get measured for knowing other functions and their ability to engage, let’s say the head of supply chain, in a discussion on the best put-away process.
This advantage and ability to influence business outcomes opens up possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, the CIO could take on additional responsibilities beyond “mundane” IT. In all possibility, he can bring about the best while improving the present. Analytical abilities come to the forefront at this point, whereupon the CIO typically challenges status quo, seeking a better tomorrow. So the question of whether a CIO is ready to take on the role of another CXO or a COO becomes irrelevant. If we push the envelope a bit further, he even has a remote chance of being a CEO. So pressure starts to build upon the CIO to get on with it.
So what’s wrong in being a good CIO? Why can’t the CIO remain in the current role and evolve it into a meaningful contributor to the organization (a difficult task to consistently execute)? At this point, the Board may benevolently grant a seat in the Boardroom’s hallowed chambers with other CXOs, executive and non-executive directors. The CIO then reaches the pinnacle of success within his role’s dimensions. Sustaining this peak position obviously requires as much effort as it took to get there. It’s at this juncture that the CIO can be deemed ready to challenge any CXO and succeed in the new role. Of course, this requires the ecosystem to at least be neutral (if not positive) towards the CIO. A negative or a non-conducive environment will be a challenge for any CXO, including the CIO. (See Are Boards ready for the CIO?)
Time to get back to the question “Are you happy being a CIO?” If you are, great! Build upon your success, challenge the organization, and keep on asking the question, “What do I need to do to get to the Boardroom?” If you aren’t, you are probably a CIO by accident or unable to find the magic formula for success (the magic formula is for another day). If you face a personal crisis on your role as a CIO, you should find yourself a mentor or coach who can help. Otherwise, go and find the right job for yourself !