Carefully chosen IT systems are key to driving a successful business, but the status of IT chief hasn’t kept pace with the rising importance of technology to the enterprise.

When CEOs were asked to name their closest strategic advisor by Gartner in a recent poll, only five per cent said they turn to the CIO, with the majority choosing the CFO to fill this brief. So why are CIOs not afforded the status to match the vital role of IT in determining a business’ fortune?

In some respects the CIO is to blame, as tech chiefs are hampered by a belief that because IT is important to the organisation then so is the CIO, according to Alan Mumby, co-leader of the global CIO/CTO group for executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson.

And while IT is core to modern business change, Mumby said, CIOs should not expect that to guarantee them the CEO’s ear: “I went to a CIO gathering this last week about the relationships between CIOs and CEOs and the whole debate was pathetic,” he said.

“I used to be a CIO in the 1980s and it’s still the same arguments about ‘Why doesn’t the CIO sit on the board?’.

“They’re missing the point. The point is as an individual you have to be on top of your game and respected by your peers, in the same way as a HR director and CFO,” he said.

CIOs who want a seat on the executive board need to be experts in all the major domains of the business – sales and marketing, HR, finance – and not just IT, Mumby said.

“It’s a big ask, but to really get IT on this top table you’ve got to earn it by being better than the rest of the board, not just looking after the tin.

“That’s just facile to even think you’d even get a place on the board that way. It’s like saying ‘Why isn’t the guy who looks after the buildings on the board?’, because those are crucial, the business couldn’t work without them.”

Mumby said that in many businesses IT is not seen as strategic because the CIO is not at the right level or the right kind of person to drive a challenging commercial agenda.

But in some businesses – in spite of the failings of CIOs – IT is starting to be seen as more than just a support function, Mumby said, with corporate innovation labs increasingly attached to IT departments.

“The locus of change now quite often emanates from IT because there is very little business change today that doesn’t require IT, and IT at least has the project management office structures and change management skills to deal with it,” he said – adding that in many cases however IT is still seen as somewhere where innovation is executed rather than created.

If CIOs are to devote time to driving that business change they need to avoid getting bogged down in their daily responsibilities running corporate IT, said Mumby.

“To do that requires them to escape the day-to-day operational stuff and it takes brave CIOs to hire people who are better than them to handle the day-to-day stuff so they can step up.”

TechRepublic recently asked why the debate over the death of the CIO refuses to go away. Perhaps if the CIO did a better job of defining themselves and their department as an agent of change certain IT roles wouldn’t be viewed as so expendable.