Building the CEO Relationship: Analyst Outlook

Most CEOs view their CIOs as effective operational leaders. Unfortunately an “operational” leader is not the same as a full “business” leader.

What’s worse is that the CIO’s success as a business leader depends on the CEO-CIO relationship. And there lies the rub.

CIOs need to understand the type of relationship they are in and what they need to do to reach the right — and hopefully better — relationship type; otherwise, research shows a cyclic relationship dilemma plays out that negatively impacts the enterprise bottom line and the career of the CIO.

Differing relationship views

Almost all CEOs recognize that IT can add value. The problem is that IT is just one of the many levers they can pull. So when asked for the things they worry most about, few CEOs mention IT at all. Instead, like as not they’ll talk about “revenue growth” as their number one priority. Ask their CIO what are the most important things for their enterprise and you’ll get a different answer. Integrity, usually in the shape of enterprise security, cost and privacy, are CIO concerns. Both the CEO and CIO are right, of course, about their priorities; it depends on your perspective. However, this communication gap is much more significant for the CIO.

Four relationship types

Although each CEO-CIO relationship is unique, four relationship types describe the range of relationship possibilities. CIOs viewed as business leaders achieve a partnering or trusted ally relationship with their CEO.

The trusted ally relationship is rare. Here, the CEO encourages the CIO to take on significant business roles.

A step down from this, partnering CIOs have established a strong foundation of IS delivery and have begun to engage in business initiatives, but to a lesser degree than trusted allies. In the partnering relationship, the CIO has established a strong base of IS service delivery. He or she takes on roles outside IS or leads non-IT initiatives.

The most common type of relationship is transactional. In this relationship, IS is delivering services, and the CIO engages the CEO and CxOs mostly on IT issues.

The lowest-performing relationship is at risk. Here, the CIO is normally in a service-provider role with a focus on fixing operational performance and cost issues. Most CIO relationships don’t start here, but many end if they reach this stage.

Using this framework, it’s possible to start doing something about your relationship. CIOs can enhance the potential for being a trusted ally by demonstrating deeper business knowledge, using IS to support non-IT business objectives, spending time with senior executives to understand the context and language of the executive team and being solution-focused. This is not the comfortable home turf for many CIOs but it is possible to make the transition.

You might think that relationship building is a soft, intangible, unmeasurable issue. But it still needs a specific, actionable, measurable plan.

Whatever relationship you are in, find a mentor or a coach. Identify your skill gaps, and use the coach to help in those areas. It could be your CEO or a board member. It could be a personal contact outside your enterprise. Or it could be a professional coach.

CIOs who have the most success in managing their CEO relationships segregate time for relationship-building activities. One Gartner EXP member religiously reserves one day every week for relationship building and other strategic activities.

A challenge and an opportunity

The CEO and senior managers have limited time. Getting slots in their calendar to sensitize them to IT possibilities is tough, but valuable; you must use them well. Make sure you engage them on business-relevant topics, talk about business benefits and talk about outcomes not activities.

Talking about IT to create further business value and competitive advantage may excite the CEO and lead to more opportunities to talk. Talking about the complexities and issues in the IT process will not.

By managing their relationships with CEOs, many CIOs can move toward a business leadership role.

Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.

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