Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Role of the CEO, Part 2

Sometime back I was party to a great discussion between CIOs on how to ensure that their boss the CEO is an ally rather than an adversary or a bystander. The CIOs were pragmatic in not expecting the CEO to become tech savvy or understand why server sizing or database tuning is a complex task or engage in a discussion on the merits of NL SAS on the SAN box. The discussion focused on how the CIO should approach the CEO; s/he is a customer as well as the final decision maker and that can make things complicated.

Today most companies have the CIO directly connected to the CEO with IT becoming an integral part of running the company’s operations. CIOs played different roles during the economic uncertainty some gaining in prominence and others falling behind a bit. Measurement criteria changed for some CXOs and market dynamics transformed roles and expectations. The CEO under pressure to deliver growth and whatever expectations the Board and shareholders set for the management in turn raised the performance bar.

The CEO as a consumer of information started demanding ad-hoc and complex analysis of historical information and future trends that sometimes challenged imagination. Doing more with less never went away, the constantly shrinking budget and stratospheric expectations created a precarious situation for the IT team and the CIO. Challenging the CEO on his need and at the same time ensuring that one experience does not influence the other decision created a tightrope like situation.

Customer is always right is a maxim has always been professed until one company decided that the customer does not know what s/he wants; so let’s tell the customer what she would need and s/he would happily embrace it. We all have been at the receiving end of this for a while now; only recently the sheen has been wearing off. But can the CEO be convinced using such a simplistic premise ? Every leader intuitively knows what they need to succeed, the CEO is no exception.

So can the CIO be the confidante to the CEO and give him/her the inputs s/he needs in various scenarios and business situations ? Should the CIO even attempt to get to that position ? What will be the acceptance of the CIO in such a role by other CXOs ? Will the CIO be able to live up to the demands and pressures of being a shadow to the CEO ? Is the CIO being too ambitious in his/her reach ? And how many will be able to get there and stay there ?

A CIO flooded with operations will rarely have the opportunity, this requires the CIO to first create a strong team which frees him/her to engage with CXOs on what matters. The CIO also needs to imbibe all the soft skills that help him/her form lasting relationships and manage expectations. Finally the CIO needs a support ecosystem to consistently deliver to promise. Only then can the CIO can expect to even begin taking the baby steps required to engage the CEO in a way that brings the two together.

Coming back to the CEO as a customer, every consumer of information starts with a broad idea which takes shape with discovery of various facets as the solution evolves; this is what we in IT call iterative development or scope creep. It takes a huge amount of effort along with loads of credibility to challenge and engage constructively without getting beaten up. Having said that I believe that CIOs should explore this uncharted territory; if done well it takes the relationship to the next level which is a great place to be.

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