The CIO litmus test

A real litmus test is a scientific tool, but you can use a business litmus test to see where your company is and how you can more effectively target your true customers.

Political pundits, scientists, and CIOs rarely share much in common, but the idea of a litmus test goes across disciplines. In each discipline, a litmus test generally gives a definite positive or negative outcome for a single indicator. On the scientific front, it determines if a solution is an acid or a base; in the political sphere, it might be where a candidate stands on a particularly divisive issue. For CIOs, there is an equally simple test to determine if they are valued contributors to the organization and seen for delivering business results or if they are just the head techie.

This litmus test is as simple as asking the CEO where he or she sees the CIO position on the succession plan to Chief Executive. In an unfortunately large number of companies, you may be forced to wait several minutes while the CEO breaks in to complete hysterics, before casting a skeptical glace in your direction and asking if you are serious.

The “big two” executive roles, CFO and COO, are commonly seen as stepping stones to the top position, unsurprising when you read of the latest CEO departure made in haste. Usually the CFO or COO will temporarily fill the Chief Executive role while a thorough search is made, yet I could not find a single incidence of the CIO working in that capacity. While there is a compelling argument that in an emergency, the “big two” are the best equipped to run the company, if the CIO role is nowhere on the organization’s succession plan, all is not well in IT. No matter what you are told, the CIO role at your organization is likely the “head techie in charge,” and you have your work cut out to change that perception. In some organizations, the CIO role takes its place with the CFO and COO as being a viable candidate for eventual transition to CEO, albeit usually with a few intermediate stops. Here are some suggestions on moving your organization into the latter category:

Have a frank discussion with your boss and the CEO

If the CIO role is not on the roadmap to the top position, you likely are not reporting directly to the CEO. While many in the IT press claim you must be a direct report to the CEO to be successful, this need not be an immediate concern. I have worked with many excellent CIOs who were able to partner with their boss, usually the CFO, to create an unstoppable duo of technology combined with financial rigor.

Sit down with your boss and the CEO and ask what changes would have to be made to the CIO position to make it a viable grooming ground for a future CEO. Listen during the conversation, rather than trying to defend your accomplishments, as the CEO details where he or she sees the CIO role as lacking. This conversation will not only provide some food for thought but will plant some seeds in other executives’ minds that perhaps the CIO role can serve as more than just top techie.

Learn your business

You will never come near the CEO position, or the other big two for that matter, without a detailed understanding of your company. CIO is one of the few executive positions (along with HR) where the executive can be fairly successful without truly understanding their company’s business. Capably managing IT delivery is vastly more similar across different industries than operations, marketing, or finance. However moving outside IT will require you to have detailed knowledge of your company’s products, markets, strategy, and competitors. Spend a few days each year working closely to your company’s customers, perhaps by doing a “ride along” during a sales call or even jockeying a register if your company is in retail. Any person who does not intimately understand the business will likely never get on the CEO track.

Target the true customer

Once you have a firm understanding of your company’s business, you will be able to more effectively target the true customers of your company, those who actually purchase your company’s goods and services. While many IT organizations have adopted a shared-services mantra, this makes the CIO look like a commodity role that can be interchanged with any outsourced providers. When you come to your peers with ideas on how to help generate more business, rather than complicated chargeback schemes and an inward focus, the CEO title becomes far more realistic.

With many of us considering where our careers will take us as the calendar changes to a fresh year, there is no better time to have these discussions with your peers and start laying a plan to move the CIO role, and perhaps your career, onto the CEO path.