CIO Folder: Back to the CIO

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21 December 2017 | 0


This Folder has covered a lot of topics in the past year but has been somewhat lax in talking about—and to—the CIOs out there. The fact is that now that the market is busy there is far less discussion or speculation about the role of the CIO. Organisations are simply getting on with it and hiring the best candidates that present themselves. Interestingly, the specific title of CIO has not particularly grown in the Irish job market. It has largely remained in the larger organisations that actually have C-suites. Quite large commercial companies and SMEs have stuck to more realistic and traditional titles such as IT director or head of IT. CIO was trendy for a while. Now it is mainstream on this side of the Atlantic but somewhat pretentious other than in large—or State—organisations.

“The supreme target audience of the CIO is the supreme council: The board of directors. Whether a member or not—and membership is a supreme advantage when advocating a strategy—that is, and they are, the decision making body. But second best is to have a respected track record of managing change and the introduction of new technology in the organisation”

But that does not change what the most senior position in IT entails: technology leadership. Those two words are general, abstract and either comprehensive or vague. But it really does not matter. Most job titles are in general terms e.g. managing director or chief executive or head of human resources. Look at them closely and they do not tell you much about the specifics of the role in the particular organisation. They indicate generally understood lines of responsibility and follow the conventions—largely historical—of business and state organisations.

Ambiguous titles
The most ambiguous one is director, not the chief officer C-suite terminology. Until the tail end of the last century, director was reserved for members of the board of directors, with a growing distinction between ‘executive’ and ‘non-executive’. In earlier days, the term ‘executive’ was applied to subordinates, not ‘managers’. The US originated C-suite rank structure was echoed over here by the so-called management board which was composed of the senior managers, typically with only one or two on the main board—usually the MD and finance director.

So IT director is ambiguous but works either way in practice. It really depends on the style of the titles in the particular organisation, not the role. The CIO job—whatever it is called—is the technology leader. There is a persistent culture in many organisations, lingering particularly in SMEs large enough to have such a position, to regard the senior technology job as the ‘manager of IT operations’. But that is bluntly an outdated view—“keeping the lights on” and that sort of thing. That side of the job is still critical, but does not require strategic vision or organisational understanding. It can be contracted to a service provider.

Today the emphasis is on looking forward and strategy. Digital transformation is the cliché. That means that the CIO must be an influencer, to persuade and convince the relevant audiences. In practice, that really comes down to the board of directors and the managerial peer group—and the IT team. But it does not end there: once the strategic decisions have been taken the audience expands to all users and quite likely to customers and partners.

But to be a serious and successful influencer the CIO must have more than the gift of the gab. The CIO’s role is multi-skilled, as this Folder has reiterated all too often. But the mix of skills and experience has different priorities and primacies depending on the organisation—and the times. Today, the primacy has to be the digital transformation of all the activities and processes in the organisation. Which in turn means that the IT leader must be knowledgeable and an influencer, acknowledged by her or his board of directors and peers to be of sound judgement. Which is a quality rating that is self-earned.

Academic level
That is one of the reasons why many highly regarded and experienced IT directors are not particularly well-qualified academically (maybe a primary degree) but are admired by their colleagues and peers. CIOs without fourth or fifth level degrees are rarer, but that may be because large organisations and their HR/HCM departments have a particular reverence for paper-certified qualifications. Corporate standards and all of that.

But the theme of this Folder is influence. Which in reality is largely earned, not bundled with rank. In real life, socially as well as in organisations, rank is entitled to give orders—if the individual chooses to behave like that. The people obeying might or might not be persuaded, but the influence part might well be simply doing what is expected—or submitting to rank. To give one common example, that is one of the reasons why employees bypass security procedures. They see them as disciplinary measures from on high, bureaucratic rules, not part of a culture of general and willing understanding fostered by persuasive influencers.

All of that is day-to-day—and not to be dismissed. One of the key factors in gaining respect and influence amongst your management peers is recognition that whatever you are doing in dealing with users and staff generally is proving effective. What works is success… and success is what works. QED.

But the supreme target audience of the CIO is the supreme council: the board of directors. Whether a member or not—and membership is a supreme advantage when advocating a strategy—that is, and they are, the decision making body. But second best is to have a respected track record of managing change and the introduction of new technology in the organisation. Influence is based on proven credibility—as well as persuasion skills.

So far this has been about the general and external view of the CIO. But what about the internal motivation and make-up, ambition and career progression and personal decision making? It is impossible to generalise accurately, because those in these positions are so varied in characteristics and personal style, in skills and experience… and in age. Not to mention gender, which is by no means insignificant in a traditionally masculine line of work. The old cliché still holds true in a lot of ways: the woman candidate needs to be twice as good as her male rivals. Usually, unfortunately.

Wide range
Internally, the CIO candidate—and incumbent—relies on judgement, experience and talent. It does not really matter what your particular set of experiences have been, so long as you have a reasonably wide range. The CIO is a generalist. You may have been a specialist, even expert in some aspect of IT. That is one pillar of your CV but you need more and above all you have to demonstrate understanding of the organisation’s domain—business, government, healthcare, multinational, start-up or whatever. There are opportunities for people in their late twenties or early thirties. There are perhaps more jobs for candidates with twenty years’ experience or longer, but that is normal for senior corporate positions.

But above all the potential CIO must have vision, a sound grasp of the right digital direction and its potential for the organisation. That must be combined with practicality, from budgets to incremental progression to staff training.

Once again, it is all about being an influencer. In a sense—and not untypical for senior jobs these days—your career as a CIO is a constant series of interviews in which you have to perform as a persuader. Convince the board and you have the mandate to succeed.


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