The IT department is gaining stature, respect, and trust within the corporate landscape. Yet it’s not such a rosy picture when it comes to the CIO role.
While a recent survey reports that nearly half of CIOs report a strong rapport with CEOs, it also indicates that only 23 percent of CIOs consider themselves their CEO's primary tech expert. And while most CIOs describe CEOs as being supportive, it’s also clear that many CIOs don’t think they’re getting deserved respect.
The relationship snags between CIOs and CEOs can be tied to several issues, according to IT executive recruiting firm John J. Davis & Associates, which conducted a survey, "The CIO on the CEO," earlier this year.
While some factors, such as poor communication, can be remedied quickly, other hurdles—such as curing a CIO’s inferiority complex or improving a CEO’s attitude toward IT—will obviously take effort.
One bit of good news is that CEOs are getting more tech savvy. Nearly half of the tech leaders polled report that their CEOs are “better than the average” when it comes to tech knowledge. Yet, that savvy isn’t due to leaning on CIO expertise, as many CEOs report they rely on outside sources.
Work needed to boost CIO role
While there's nothing inherently wrong with a CEO gathering IT information from other sources—peers, conferences, or business periodicals—CIOs do view that action as a threat to their role, according to survey participants.
"When a CEO comes to the CIO with ideas about how to use IT for the enterprise, the CIO assumes there's an outside source that has the CEO’s ear," explained John Davis, president of John J. Davis & Associates. The fact that a CEO would turn to external sources only feeds another issue at play—the lingering inferiority complex that some CIOs have. According to Davis, many CIOs feel like second-class citizens within the corporate structure.
Both experts and TechRepublic members believe that a savvy CEO is better than one who’s not up on technology. CIOs dealing with a technically challenged CEO have a unique set of issues to contend with—even if the CEO is relying on their expertise.
“IT feels underappreciated and the boss acts like the KGB with its money and time,” wrote C.G. Treadwell. “Unless a CEO understands computers, uses them in their daily life and takes that positive view of IT to the office, the relationship between the CEO and CIO will be like a blind date.”
In this situation, CIOs need to step in and act as educators, not only for the CEO but also for other business units.
"Education isn't just upwards to the CEO," explained Davis. "CIOs need to sell to the division heads by being a partner with those businesses." The resulting consensus can create a constituency that will not only boost confidence in the IT projects, but also boost the CIO's stature and enable the CIO to act as a business partner rather than a service provider.
That was the experience of Ruth Henahan, a TechRepublic member and retired CIO and strategic information officer (SIO) for the New York State Office of Real Property Services. Henahan said it was the close relationships with cross-functional managers that helped her develop and drive strategic plans and work-process improvement initiatives. More essential, though, was a positive relationship with her CEO that greased the wheels of the IT projects.
"The SIO role energizes a strong relationship with the agency's CEO," she explained. CIOs also have unique contributions to make toward corporate success, noted another TechRepublic member.
"The CIO is in a position to take a rather unexpected role vis-a-vis the CEO—that of internal confident and consultant," wrote TechRepublic member and IT consultant Jeff Spock. Spock, a former senior vice president of IS who reported to a global VP at a former $50 billion global enterprise, says that a CIO has specific knowledge about the company's operations.
"Sure, financial controllers know all the numbers. The numbers they get are often dressed up or dressed down to fit the needs of the reporting entity,” he explained. “IT has not only the entity’s raw data, but also an intimate knowledge of their concerns, priorities, and how they actually deal with these every day.”
Changing the CEO perspective
Unfortunately, though, the CIO’s knowledge about corporate operations often falls to the wayside, as many CEOs don’t take the time necessary to engage CIOs. As a recent TechRepublic poll indicates, more work needs to be done to create a collaborative working relationship between CIOs and CEOs in many organizations (see Figure A).
A key obstacle to improving the CIO-CEO relationship is the need to change the CEO’s perspective of the IT leader’s value to the enterprise. According to the Davis survey, while 43 percent of CIOs say their CEOs view IT as a business entity, 31 percent report that their CEOs view IT as simply a support function (see Figure B).
In that second situation, conversations between CIOs and CEOs "tend to be more reactionary than proactive," explained Davis, "which is a sad commentary on the state of business itself."
The CEO should "discuss openly and frequently" what's needed in the enterprise and brainstorm with the CIO to gain assurance that the CIO is in tune with the company's strategy, added Davis.
And that’s where a CIO's skills as a communicator come into play. The communication is critical in working with business counterparts to learn and understand different business needs, according to Davis and TechRepublic members.
"IT maps the business processes, knows what applications are and are not used, and learns in project meetings what the real problems and issues are," said Spock. "This is why it is possible for a CIO to have an 'ear to the ground' that no other corporate officer can match."
When the CEO realizes the value of having an executive in tune with the business needs of the company, the CIO will have incredible power to do good for the company, he added.