How CIOs can earn greater trust from the executive team

imo-blogHow can CIOs become more central to the process of setting strategy and direction for an organization? management consultant and author Tom Cox makes the case that the relationship begins with trust — trust that must be earned.

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By Tom Cox

Preparing for my recent speech to members of the Portland chapter of the Society for Information Management, I discovered that their burning question was this: how can CIOs (the bulk of their membership) become more strategic — how can they contribute even more effectively to setting strategy and direction for the entire company?

Looking at it from the CIO perspective, you can see the frustration — they are keenly aware of cutting edge technologies that might be useful in differentiating the company and better serving customers, but many of these CIOs aren’t being listened to.

On the other hand, trust has to be earned. Put your CEO hat on, and let’s look at common perceptions of IT departments (hat tip to

  • Slow to respond
  • Cost center with a “bottomless pit”
  • Project failure
  • Systems anarchy/lack of oversight
  • Unclear return on investment/value for $
  • Complex and “necessary evil”

The story in the CEO’s head is, “You can’t run your own business, so why should I let you touch mine?” [1]

In other words, the CIO will be allowed to be a strategic player once he shows he deserves it. Okay, if you’re the CIO, what do you do next? If you’re the CEO, how do you coach your CIO on what you want him to do next?

To help find out, I interviewed former CIO and consultant Bill Speir. Bill is both a former Management Consultant with EDS, Price Waterhouse/PwC, and Hartford Technology Services Company, and well as the former divisional CIO for Diagnostic Imaging. This is a topic he has spent much time lecturing and counselling clients on.

Bill has room to talk because he has lived this — he was the divisional CIO for Diagnostic Imaging just after that company had acquired 50 small local operations over 36 months. His job was to give them a single technology platform. Bill immediately pushed back, telling the CEO and the rest of the executive team that they had 50 different business models, and no one platform would serve — they needed to devise a single, shared business model for all 50 locations, and then Bill could deliver a single platform to support that model.

It took about a year for Bill and his team to build the technology platform, and it worked brilliantly. However, it only worked because he understood the business well enough to challenge the CEO and push for what the business truly needed — a single, shared business model.

The larger lesson here is that CIOs have to be bilingual — they have to speak both the language of business, and the language of technology. The unique role of the CIO is to bridge the gap. If the CIO doesn’t understand the business, it will be impossible for him to deliver technology solutions that fit the business. If the CIO doesn’t understand technology, it will be impossible for him to run his own department.

So, the CEO needs to ensure that he selects a CIO who can do both these things. And the CIO should be ego-less and self-aware in assessing whether he’s right for his role, and the areas where he needs to get better. (Here, the CIO could commission a confidential 360-degree assessment of himself aimed specifically at answering that question.)

The CIO also needs to see his department’s mission as actively serving the rest of the business. “Too many IT departments spend their time making their own work easier instead of doing whatever it takes to make the business succeed. The CIO needs to communicate that business-centered focus to all of IT,” says Speir.

These are lessons any CIO – or any manager or front line worker – can take into action to enhance their effectiveness and strategic value. Listen to the full interview here.

[1] Source: Real Business of IT: How CIOs Create and Communicate Value– Hunter/Westerman © 2009 Sphere: Related Content

Thomas B. Cox runs Cox Business Consulting, Inc. and is creator of the blog and web radio show Tom on Leadership, aimed at CEOs and business owners. He has worked with IBM, Oracle, Tektronix, ODOT, Intel and others.