In March, a celebrity business speaker was booked to entertain an audience of CIOs in Amsterdam. He worried it would be a tough gig for an audience that would be hard to warm up. “The CIO is a troubled person at the moment,” he explained, “Many of them think they may be losing their jobs.”
Not in the conventional sense of redundancy. It’s just that their role and influence in the company is changing dramatically. For the worse. Their job title might be chief information officer, but some feel they’re increasingly treated like glorified datacentre managers. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report suggests that most CIOs don’t even get the final say on technology purchases in the boardroom anymore. The chief financial officer does that now, while the poor IT strategist is tied up with security and compliance regulations.
How did it get to this? Some think IT directors should never be forgiven for the billions that were lost in the Y2K fiasco. “At boardroom level they’re now asking questions,” explains Greg Day, a security analyst for McAfee, who commissioned the Economist study. “They say ‘we keep giving the CIO all this money. When are we going to see any feedback?’”
The dot-com bubble didn’t help matters. Preposterous IT industry campaign slogans, like IT doesn’t support the business, IT IS the business didn’t win many friends. Especially not for the blameless CIO, who became the focus of the understandable resentment this hype created. If there’s an IT expert on the board of directors these days, there’ll be several people wanting to kick them off.
Tug of war
According to Andy Mulholland, the CTO and technology trends watcher for consultancy Capgemini, the average CIO is being pulled both ways. “On the one hand, their energies are being channeled towards rather mundane back-office duties, which pleases the auditors and keeps everything compliant,” he says. “On the other hand, they’re expected to be creative, and lead on business strategy. But the work that keeps the CFO happy takes precedence.” And so the role of today’s CIO is more about cost cutting, control and compliance, and less about the roles that may have attracted them to the job in the first place, such as planning and strategic innovation.
“If they want to innovate and lead, they’re not getting it done,” says Mulholland. “We found there’s been a massive difference between what CIOs said they planned to do at the start of the year, and what actually transpired at the end of the year. You can be a creative or a cost cutter, but it’s a difficult juggling act to be both,” he says.
“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.
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.
Lesley Everett, managing director of branding consultancy Walking Tall, advises executives on raising their “personal brand”. “It’s important because often people are brilliant at their jobs, but present a poor personal image,” says Everett. Here are Everett’s tips on how CIOs can push themselves.
Keep things simple. Sometimes your presentations and input in meetings can be confusing if there’s too much technical detail.
Stick to your absolute key points. Edit your presentation down to the bare bones and adopt the dictum that less is more. It’s better to have people asking for more information than watching them lose interest.
Think in pictures. Most people learn best through visualisation. Paint verbal pictures. Explain concepts with diagrams. Edit out all the jargon unless you have an audience that’s impressed by that sort of thing.
Consider building in stories and anecdotes to illustrate key points – “a funny thing happened on the way to the boardroom” – that make your narratives much more interesting for an audience. This allows you to project something about you and shows your willingness to engage and connect with the audience and get your points across.
Remind people of your business acumen, or they’ll think you are “just” a techie. Keep meeting with them and reminding them that you are aware of their concerns and have schemes to help overcome problems.
Dress sharply at all times and ditch the facial hair. Studies show us that a majority of people never associate beards with management!
Don’t forget accessories – the laptop case, briefcase, overcoat are all part of the image you project. Arriving for meetings with clutter suggests a cluttered mind.
“Logical thinkers tend to think that just being good at their job is enough, and that the quality of their work will speak for itself,” says Everett. “The problem is, most people don’t understand that the more work you’ve put into a system, the easier it appears to them.” Like it or not, everyone has a personal brand and Everett has a range of practical tips to help CIOs improve their personal brand image in the company. (See box)
Communication is key
It’s not so much about branding, but about communication, argues David Miller, managing director of consultancy ITDynamics, which offers interim management to companies in need of IT leadership. “People can see through the ‘profile raisers’ these days, but it is still necessary to communicate more. There are subtle ways to remind people of your work. More importantly, you can eliminate some of the negative elements that attach themselves to your work. Surly helpdesk operatives, for example, should be made to shape up or ship out,” he explains. “Don’t neglect to cultivate people, be proactive in finding out what their needs are and make sure they know that someone is listening to them. So spend more time speaking to senior people in each department, finding out what problems they have, what’s missing from IT and what issues are not being addressed,” he adds. “The chances are you do that already, but the trick is to make sure everyone knows about it,” says Miller.
Miller also advises IT leaders to formalise the process and make it a regular event by having a conference call every week, or a meeting. “It may be against your nature to grandstand, but it’s not enough to do your job, you have to be seen doing your job,” he says. As a consultant, Miller is often called into corporations to act as an interim CIO, before setting up the infrastructure for individuals he recruits to take over. Once a CIO has shown he or she has listened to all the board members and the senior decision maker, that platform needs to be built on.
“Develop a strategy for IT to support the business and a clear proposition for future business,” says Miller. “Then write this up as a report and present it to various interested parties,” he says. According to Miller, who has obviously refined this process over his years in the business, this should take you no more than two weeks and will act as an exhibition of your competence. If you work in a public-sector organisation, the principle is the same, but you may want to seek out the key stakeholders in the organisation. A CIO is meant to be an information expert, so it helps if they are seen to be good at communicating. Instead of issuing bossy directives to users, try keeping them in the loop about developments. You need to keep communicating to users what you’re about, or they’ll soon lapse back into their comfortable prejudices about IT being run by geeks who prefer machines to people.
An intranet-based solution is one possible approach that makes information openly available for staff from a web browser. On the downside, it’s time-consuming and online publishing is a dark art that the IT department might not have mastered. A formal newsletter? There’s only one thing worse than a lack of communication, and that’s a tedious, expensive publication, that doesn’t communicate. It’s a great trick if you can pull it off and could help get users on your side, but avoid the temptation to rush something out. If it’s bad, it’ll only damage your reputation further. Being recognised in the media works too. Colleagues who take your good work for granted may think differently if they see how an independent publication, or broadcaster, perceives you. A practical and less time-consuming method of communicating is to organise events.
You want everyone to see the human side of the IT department and its senior decision makers. Scheduled face-to-face meetings are always helpful, although you might need to offer some kind of event to facilitate interaction with IT. Consider offering free training.
Video is a fantastic medium for endearing yourself to people – but only if executed well. Most departmental heads and CEOs love making them, and as CIO you are ideally placed to flatter their egos. “There’s
increasing demand for personal broadcasts,” says Julian Phillips, managing director of Iocom, which offers a
video-casting product to corporations. “If you can fulfil that demand, it’s a great way for the CIO to give people what they want. And now the YouTube generation is making its way up the corporate rankings, video is seen as a way of communicating messages.”
Finally, make sure you can back up your ‘vision’. “Leadership requires more than being able to point out the possibilities. That’s the easy bit,” says Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County Council.
“The impossible is easy for he who does not have to do it.”