CIOs can impact their destinies

I bet you’ve heard this before: The CIO must “get a seat” at the executive table. Once there, he must convince others that IT is strategic to the organization, thereby securing his own destiny. There are a host of other mandates that go along with this advice, such as “develop a good relationship with business stakeholders.”

Despite their best attempts, however, some CIOs are never elevated (figuratively or literally) from the basement of the organization. Why? Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a number of seasoned IT managers. We were talking about some of the sage advice that is often given to CIOs.

Eventually, the topic turned to a good question: How much control does the CIO really have over her destiny? I look at this as a sort of nature versus nurture question. Nature versus nurture has to do with how much of one’s behaviour and personality is predetermined by genetics and how much is shaped by environmental factors.

Applied to the destiny of CIOs, nature versus nurture is a way to look at how much of a CIO’s success depends on her performance and how much is predetermined by the culture and strategy of the firm in which she works.

Advice to CIOs (including that given in my own column) almost always implies that the CIO is the master of her destiny. All she has to do is be a highly competent technologist, become a savvy business person and forge successful relationships with other business executives. Then IT becomes strategic, and the CIO gallops off to success. Intuition and experience tell us that this is not always the way it happens.

I have talked with many CIOs who have shared their frustration about roadblocks they face in making IT strategic and in securing their place in the organization. Roadblocks often include the following:

• The CEO or CFO doesn’t think IT is strategic and won’t be persuaded that it is.

• IT has always been seen as “overhead” or a cost centre in the company.

• The corporate executives don’t understand what IT does, nor do they wish to. Some will say these are merely cop-outs — ways for a CIO to escape responsibility. Certainly, some CIOs use statements like these to excuse their failure. But I think that some CIOs face real roadblocks that nobody could overcome. For example, if the CEO is convinced that IT is merely a utility, how likely is it that even a good CIO can convince him otherwise?

I suspect that most CIOs and IT managers can still impact their destiny. But a smaller percentage (perhaps 20 per cent) may work in organizations where the attitude toward IT makes it almost impossible for IT to ever be seen as strategic.

As an IT professional and potential or current CIO, you need to think about this when you look at career opportunities. If you want a seat at the executive table and want to oversee a strategic IT group, you’d better make sure that the corporate culture supports that ambition. Don’t assume that you can change the CEO’s mind. Conversely, if you are content to be the head of an IT utility, find an organization where that vision matches the top executive’s idea of “great IT.”

Most of you do have some control over your destiny. You must continue to provide reliable and low-cost infrastructure services while developing strong relationships with business leaders. You must help the business to understand how it can use IT to accomplish its goals. You must determine the staffing mix to help you do it.

But for those of you in the minority, who have little or no control over your destiny, there’s not a whole lot you can do except understand the situation you face. And you might want to look for another job.

Gomolski is a vice-president at Gartner Inc., where she focuses on IT financial management. Contact her at

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