Our respective spheres of influence have changed in business since I first started working, with focus oscillating between IT and Finance depending on latest technology, market trends, the economy and growth agendas.
Over the last few years organisations have moved the reporting line of the CIO to the CFO.
Whilst much has been written on the pros and cons of this reporting structure from a business perspective, there is little guidance for CIO’s and CFO’s on how to work together effectively.
The key is to understand each other in real terms and not just expect to find the standard stereotypes.
It's easy to see the CIO’s being the bits and bytes geek with little business knowledge and the CFO’s the bean counter, buried in their office with Excel and looking for ways to say no to all investment and innovation.
These stereotypes hold a real danger for businesses today. The disheartened CIO who continues to perceive a natural disconnect with their CFO boss may feel limited in the scope of their ambition and end up simply perpetuating the myth of IT as nothing more than a necessary evil.
Equally, the CFO who pigeon-holes the CIO as someone who lacks understanding of the business, risks blinding themselves to the massive potential of IT as a key strategic differentiator for their organisation.
However, in order for perceptions, but also actual behaviours to change, not just between the CIO and the CFO and but also across the wider CxO suite, both sides need to address a number of key points:
1 Be credible
This is about gravitas. Too often I think people believe that gravitas is an image. A suit, a pair of shoes, a deeper voice. I think it’s much more than that.
It’s about instilling confidence in people that you’re someone that can be relied upon to get the job done with the minimum of fuss, whether it’s migrating data centres, negotiating a multi-million pound contract or implementing a new ERP system.
Ultimately the key is to ensure the outcomes are business focused and that both the CIO and CFO is capable of seeing the big picture in terms of company strategy and ensuring IT and Finance aligns to it.
2 Be vocal and be brave
CIOs and CFOs are not always comfortable blowing their own trumpet in earshot of their peers.
I’m not saying that has to change, but both sides need to share more and communicate their business ideas.
Have an opinion, believe in it, communicate it and have the conviction to prove yourself right.
Too many IT and Finance leaders sit in wider management meetings saying nothing on most topics because they don’t think it applies to them.
They should have an opinion or at least ask questions for understanding of all the items on the agenda.
Otherwise why are they there?
3 Be humble
Selling yourself is important, but don’t become blinkered by your own brilliance. The best business minds are always looking at how others do things, and learning from both successes and failures.
Be open to others ideas and be prepared to admit if you got it wrong and to change your direction if necessary.
4 Be commercial
By the time people reach the heights of the C-suite, the skills that got them there may no longer be relevant for the task in hand.
This is as true for CEOs as it is for CFOs and CIOs.
Being a great programmer or a good number cruncher is fine when you work in a programming or numbers-focused role, but of little direct use when it comes to making the big decisions at the top of a business.
Actively take an interest in the business strategy, external economy and your own personal development.
CIO’s and CFO’s need to be Business Leaders first and have IT and Finance responsibilities second.
5 Be present
This always creates a dilemma for senior IT and Finance leaders.
Do you sit in the ivory tower of the C level floor and be seen by your people as too distant and not interested in them or do you sit with IT and Finance at the risk of being seen as just an IT or Finance person by the business?
As a senior executive, you represent your department to your customers, both internal and external. As a CIO or CFO, company employees should know who you are, as should your business’ customers.
If they don’t, how can they have any confidence in the abilities of you, your team and the service they deliver?
Make opportunities to present to wider groups across your organisation and in the external business community to build your profile.
6 Be timely
As in comedy, timing is everything. Whether it’s planning a system upgrade or pitching the board for more budget, your timing has got to be spot on.
If sales are down and profits are under pressure, is this the right time to ask for bigger budgets next year?
Understanding the business, as in point 4, is crucial in being able to know when the time is right.
7 Be optimistic
I’m not talking about saying everything is fine when things clearly aren’t, but being upbeat and offering solutions instead of focusing only on the negatives is key to your credibility across the C-suite.
For myself as a CFO I have a hundred reasons to say No to any request, the secret sauce is to find the Yes in a given situation. Yes makes things happen and drives innovation, No stagnates the business and maintains the current status quo.
8 Be a salesman
This is something that both CIOs and CFOs occasionally forget in my experience.
Remember to focus on the business benefit and to communicate appropriately to your audience.
An infrastructure upgrade pitch created in terms of 10x more storage space or improved IOPs of x will go right over the heads of senior management and they may miss the opportunity.
Conversely a pitch that focuses on the improvement of operational efficiency by x or the development of a new Go To Market is more likely to be well received.
9 Be accountable
One of the great frustrations of business is not knowing who owns what.
Those that put their head above the parapet and accept accountability can quickly become the go-to-people and command more respect than those that sit at the back of class, their hands firmly down.
10 Be innovative
IT is the great business enabler of the 21st century and is definitely not to be viewed as purely a hygiene factor and a cost.
As a CFO, I love finding new ways to change the way we do business and make our organisation a meaner and leaner machine, and technology is a key facilitator for that.
Knowing the business means spotting the weaknesses and knowing that IT can be the medium to turn these into opportunities.
CIOs are reporting into CFOs because some businesses see IT purely as a cost, and the CFO as the cost gatekeeper.
This viewpoint is dangerous and runs a significant risk of both parties playing to their stereotypical roles and stifling their personal development and that of their organisations.
Instead both CIO’s and CFO’s should seize the incredible technological opportunities that exist and work closely together regardless of reporting lines, focused purely on finding the Yes and driving innovation and growth in their businesses.
Steve O'Neill is CFO EMEA North at EMC Computer Systems