Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Mike McCarron, partner, Advisory Services at PwC.
I was a CIO for over 20 years across multiple industries. My job now is to help advise CIOs on how not to make the same mistakes I made.
Every article I read about how to succeed at being a CIO has the phrase “getting a seat at the table” buried somewhere in the content. Why, after CIOs have existed for so many decades, do we still struggle to legitimize the function as a true player in the C-suite?
I see many more CIOs getting pushed away from the table than I see winning more responsibility and gaining strategic legitimacy. What I’ve seen over the years is a profound lack of trust in CIOs — and the high turnover that you would expect as a result.
There’s clear evidence of this failure by CIOs to gain strategic legitimacy going all the way back to the early 2000s with the dot-com boom, when every company wanted to do e-commerce.
Instead of turning to their CIOs to build those operations, they went out and hired e-commerce leaders.
Fast-forward 20 years: Now, every company wants to digitize operations and instead of entrusting that work to CIOs, they’re hiring chief digital officers.
Where are companies turning to address the growing need for better data insights, for harnessing artificial intelligence, overseeing robotics, and deciphering blockchain? Not to their CIO … they are hiring chief data officers.
Why? It’s not because of the reasons often linked to CIO turnover, like security breaches or failed projects, though those can sometimes be secondary factors. It’s primarily because we haven’t done enough to establish ourselves as strategic business leaders first and technology leaders second.
Every other person at the C-suite table is a business leader first, followed by whatever function they happen to lead. Many of them are functionally interchangeable.
Most CIOs come up through one of two tracks: The application development world, where you understand things like how code works, or the networking-server world, where you understand infrastructure and data centers.
Unlike a COO or a CFO progression, those tracks do not lend themselves to deep business insight.
Grab any network leader or any application developer and ask them what the business outcome is of the work they perform every day, and I’d guess that none of them know. In my experience, getting the network/infrastructure person or the application developers to ever understand why a business is doing something is almost impossible.
Seldom do you find someone who has depth in both of those worlds — and the one thing you almost never see is a person from somewhere else in the business playing the role of CIO.
Conversely, how often have you heard of the CIO eventually becoming the CEO? Almost never.
The CIOs who come up through the networking or application tracks may do a perfectly good job of making sure the printers, servers, and accounts payable applications are working. But that doesn’t earn them a seat at the table where business strategy is formed. It’s just basics.
Because they focus on those tasks, many CIOs wind up being highly paid help-desk managers. It’s much easier to retreat to what you know than it is to take a risk.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of the opposite problem as well. Regardless of their lack of understanding of business outcomes, someone gets promoted to the CIO role and forgets that job No. 1 is keeping everything running 100% of the time.
They become so impressed by themselves and their new “C” title that they lose sight of one of the pillars of the role: Service.
They say to themselves, “I’m equal now with the CFO and COO, so I don’t have to listen to them.” Then they make decisions in a vacuum. They don’t collaborate, and they fail.
If you’re a CIO, you must be a strategic business leader while leading a service organization. You must understand that you are there to make the CEO, the CFO, and everybody else in the C-suite more successful and to make the business fundamentally better, whatever that means for that business.
It’s up to you to bring ideas to the table to drive additional sales, improve customer intimacy, build a better product, etc. You can’t just sit in the room and talk about how you will find another 10% of costs to remove from your budget every year.
CIOs need to be able to have a conversation with CEOs and CFOs about how they’re going to make them and the company more effective — without using a lot of tech jargon. And then they have to execute on those promises.
Another problem that trips up some CIOs: They make promises they can’t deliver on because they don’t know how to manage expectations.
If I were hiring a CIO tomorrow, I’d be looking for someone first with demonstrated leadership capabilities, not necessarily someone with a networking or applications background.
You can teach the technology — or hire great technologists to work for you — but it’s hard to teach leadership and listening skills to a senior person.
It’s that gap between not knowing enough and knowing too much that creates a problem for so many CIOs. Because you want to be the smartest person in the room and you know too much about tech, that’s what you talk about.
Instead, the primary discussion topic should be of upmost importance to, and resonate with, your peers in the C-suite: growth of the business.