Categorizing the CIO Role
Analysts like to categorize. As reported in a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Korn/Ferry categorized CIOs into four groups:
I think those categories have dated. But more importantly, CIOs are not defined as much by their traits as by their circumstances. In an ideal model, perhaps every role in every company perfectly aligns skills, proclivities, personality, and aspirations to the work. But ideal models don’t exist.
I can guarantee you that if the transformational, innovative or technology-oriented CIOs are not also commercial, then they won’t last long. Profit-making businesses need to make money, and non-profits need to at least break even. Information technology is a key to both.
The world has also changed since 2016 in profound ways, perhaps most profoundly for the CIO who must balance the disruption of supporting distributed work with no time to plan and the opportunities presented by consumers migrating quickly to digital-only models.
Distributed work and digital experience serve the same audience, it just depends on what the person is doing at the time.
The bottom line comes down to the business needing answers to serving customers with more and better digital experiences through a workforce that also requires more and better digital experiences.
The CIO role: what kind of CIO do you want to be?
So regardless of aspirations, all the Korn/Ferry CIOs must become navigators and sailors first, capable of setting a course and correcting for the unforeseen.
Few CIOs can make a choice about managing change. It is no longer change management driven by IT, but managing change that is transforming IT.
As to what kind of CIO you want to be, in the case of managing change, there are three options:
- Embrace it
- Challenge it
- Ignore it
The only one that works: Embrace it. The other two remain legitimate choices that some may select, perhaps arguing that waiting out the disruption will offer a better post-crisis position because competitors will be spent from their thrashing about during the disruption. That is a position that first assumes the business can live through the change and come out on the other side with the resources to carry on.
Most businesses will find waiting while the world changes around them a difficult position to maintain. And with so many disruptions, the question must be asked: When do things settle down enough for us to reassert ourselves?
The answer to that question is: no one knows.
Embracing change means being in the moment while thinking robustly about the future. While scenario planning doesn’t future-proof organizations, (I do not believe in future-proofing BTW), it does offer them a space to imaginatively explore alternatives and practice futures—and that is better than guessing about one and being wrong.
It may be possible to resist the need to manage change, but I highly recommend that you refrain from doing so. Learning how to adapt is a much more marketable skill than intransigence.
Defining your role in the business or having it defined for you?
Next, there is the role to play within the organization. In the Korn/Ferry model, transformational and innovative CIOs hint of new business and the tossing out of legacy systems—movement toward the Cloud, AI, ML, RPA and other acronyms of the day.
The commercial CIO sounds stalwart and upstanding, leading IT as the infrastructure of the business—keeping costs down and doing just enough to enable the business without overstepping into thinking IT will drive the business.
In contrast, the technology-oriented CIO is probably more CTO than CIO and may actually reside along with or manage a CIO: a CIO to manage the business and a CTO to turn data and information technology into a product and a competitive weapon.
The questions here are: do you want to run the business of the business or help drive the business? Do you see IT as a cost center or a profit center? Do you worry about chargebacks or margins?
Categorizing the CIO
One of my favorite books is George Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. It’s a big, thick book that explores cognitive linguistics, but I always treasured its insights on the human propensity to place concepts into buckets. If you look back on much of the work done by analysts on behalf of IT, our role has been to create frameworks that make sense of ideas emerging from chaos.
I won’t go into detail on these “types of CIO” categorization approaches but will list a couple for you to reflect on.
In a 2016 Forbes Insights article analyzing their CIO Transformation Survey they offered the following:
- Transformers—CIOs leading the organization’s digital charge; establishing “labs”; seeking both outside and internal innovators
- Advocates—CIOs promoting digital concepts to their organizations; launching pilot projects or experiments
- Servicers—CIOs providing support and advice for digital initiatives when called upon; but are not proactive in creating or launching digital efforts
- Plumbers—CIOs mainly focused on keeping systems running, up to date and compliant, ensuring that all underlying “pipes” are connected and data flowing; no direct involvement in digital initiatives
OST’s Jim VanderMey offers up a view of the CIO from the Advanced Marketing, Digital Experience and Connected Product perspective:
- The Opportunity-Oriented CIO
- The Altruistic Ally CIO
- The Apathetic CIO
- The Oppositional CIO
Writing in CIO Chris Curran opines three categories:
- Operations Experts
Considering your core may offer value in personal understanding. As this post points out, however, regardless of how you classify yourself, or how others classify you mean very little when confronted with what you need to do. How you think and approach a problem will be much less important to your peers and customers than the actions you take to solve their problems or overcome their obstacles. It’s great to know who you are, but don’t let that knowledge create a box you can’t get out of. Leadership requires stepping into the moment and becoming who you need to be.
A commercial CIO in a business that decides it wants to sell its data becomes defined by the choice. There is no complacency in that situation about being a technology-oriented CIO, or an innovative one—and likely not about transformation either.
The choice to enter the market where IT becomes a profit center changes everything, even the seemingly stable pieces of just running infrastructure and applications because the new demands will undermine assumed requirements.
An alternative path has the CIO become the advocate, and eventually the winner of the argument for the commercialization of information assets.
Of course, selling data isn’t the only disruptive path. New ways to market, new customer experiences, and the internal use of data for better decision-making also drive change and force CIOs to re-examine their roles.
As a CIO, you have the choice of actively defining your role or having it redefined for you.
The CIO as owner of the emergent
The CIO role emerged when finance realized that computing was not just about financial reporting. The business ran factory floors, in the air, in stores, and in stadiums—and not all the numbers were fiscal. The CIO was invented as a role to reach across the organization and manage its information and the computing resources—hardware and software—that made information work for the business.
As new technologies or new threats emerge, the Chief Information Officer title doesn’t seem broad enough to some or focused enough for others. Some organizations want a Chief Innovation Officer charged with using technology as a competitive weapon. Others want a Chief Information Security Officer to stave off ransomware, security breaches, and a host of untoward threats to business processes and the data they create and manage.
Some organizations conflate the CIO and CTO role into the CITO, which usually means, as described above, one of those roles ends up with a senior leader, sans the “chief” title doing that work—and that is usually the CIO role, the less sexy of the two. Others take a spin with CTPO, bringing together technology and product, a particularly popular choice among tech firms and start-ups that see information technology as the only path to market.
Ultimately most of these roles either become so important that the conflation ends, or they assimilate and become just another accountability. Sometimes taking on an extra title modifier brings emphasis to an area of crisis or needed focus.
Perhaps the best lesson from emergent titles is to worry more about what you do than what you are called. If the role allows for the right level of influence, then don’t worry about how many letters it includes. They may well change again. Attach to the work, not the title.
Balancing between you, the role you want, and the role your organization needs
What CIO role? is really a rhetorical question. Even as CIOs define themselves their circumstances redefine them. Perhaps a better question is: What type of CIO does your organization want and are you willing to step up to that need, and by stepping up, own its redefinition as you live it?
McKinsey made headlines asserting that businesses and consumers leapt ahead five years in eight weeks at the start of the pandemic. What COVID did was force choices that were already available. The collaboration vendor community pushed distributed, anytime, anywhere work for years. Businesses understood the value of working around the clock and the world spun, but that was always on work. The technology was there, perhaps not perfect, but adequate—all the pandemic did was trigger the need for more people to adopt collaboration technology in a deeper way.
Many CIOs saw the crisis as a way to prove the value of their collaboration and e-commerce technology investments—and on the back of their successes, they were able to do more. From Microsoft to Cisco, and Salesforce to Google, collaboration technology continued to advance, as did the technologies of automation and insight.
CIOs were faced with an onslaught of change, characterized by near-weekly releases of new features to collaboration suites.
There are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, some of which are just now starting to appear.
Most importantly, CIOs who embraced change thrived. Those who continue to embrace change, even when it looks like change has slowed, will still be in the right, even if their organizations ask them to take a breath along with everyone else suddenly maskless and pushing toward a return to the office.
That position of a return to normalcy is a change in itself because in the “normal” world it just was what it was, there was nothing to return to. Organizations will eventually realize there is no returning to normal—the cliché of the “new normal” is just that, a cliché. The new normal is thousands of different normals that CIOs must adapt to, each in the context of their organization and their market.
But as the pandemic hurled toward endemic, the Russian war with Ukraine destabilized new supply chains and put new stresses on the increasingly fractured global economy. Inflation threatens to transform a tight job market into one once again riddled with layoffs—and like all economic shifts, a misalignment between skill, ambition, and opportunity. The flat world and its interconnected global economy can no longer be assumed as the path forward.
CIOs have to lead in that reality. It’s fine to aspire to transformation or innovation, to just running the shop or running a business, but regardless of aspiration, reality will assert its needs. A good CIO will be what they need to be, or they will get frustrated and leave, or find themselves underperforming and likely out of a job.
Two traits do rise to the top, not in order or opposition, but in balance—the need to listen and the need to influence. Listening allows leaders to understand what the business and their teams require, and influence helps them meet the needs of both.
In a world of constant change and challenge, you must internalize the traits of all the CIO types, eschewing inspiration for detail, or vision for results proves a false dichotomy. Embracing change means embracing complexity—the complexity of the situation, and the complexity of you as a human being.
Do not etch traits on your door and proclaim that you are this kind of CIO or that kind of CIO. An amalgam of technical, leadership and interpersonal skills need to be recognized and owned so they can be called upon when needed. If you want to be a leader who simply manages, then being a CIO is the wrong job for you.
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