When John Mealia sits down to interview someone for a CIO position, the senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International knows better than to start asking about technology expertise. He chooses questions that help pinpoint the level of business savvy. Some of these might be specific to the employer he’s working for, but if all else fails there’s always a standby: How does your company make money?
“It is amazing, in my opinion, how many CIOs cannot answer that question,” said Mealia, who was among the speakers at the CIO Association of Canada’s (CIOCAN) eighth annual Peer Forum, which wrapped up in Toronto on Friday. “I hear lots about a program that got implemented. What I listen for is, ‘I sat down with my LOB executive, head of retail banking, and what she was interested in was building a wider relationship with her clients.’ What I listen for is, did the CIO have that conversation with the business leader?”
Though the word “alignment” didn’t come up over the day-and-a-half event, connecting IT departments more closely to business objectives remained an ongoing part of the Peer Forum, where the official theme was “Be the Business: Meeting the Future Head-On.” Through a series of keynotes and panel discussions, several executives suggested the CIO’s evolution from valued tactician to strategic peer is far from complete.
Lars Goransson, general manager and group vice-president of IDC Canada, presented results of a research project that includes responses of CIOs across North America and Europe. IT leaders told IDC that while they don’t amount for much of their budgets today, customer-facing technologies such as cloud computing, social media and mobility will likely account for 80 per cent of their spending by the end of the decade. That may be because they are looking for opportunities to reposition themselves and their function in the enterprise. More than half of the sample, 67 per cent, said they see their role revolving into chief innovation officers. The No. 3 goal for CIOs in 2012 is to foster a culture within IT that drives more innovation. 80 per cent say CIOs should be spending 2/3 of their time with the business.
“A lot of it is focused on the fact that IT has become the process. They don’t just own the infrastructure and apps,” he said.
CIOCAN has quietly been conducting its own research for advocacy purposes for the last several years. At the 2010 Peer Forum, for example, the association published the results of a study that began to track the likelihood of CIOs to become CEOs, and examined characteristics that lead to such a move. Ken Grant, a professor with Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Business, said CIOCAN is now updating that research with fresh interviews with about 20 more CEOs and CIOs that includes their American counterparts. This research is about half-way done, Grant said.
“A lot of it is based on the nature of the company you work for and how IT is governed. If it’s a mature user of IT with a good governance structure, that is likely to produce a CIO who will move up,” he said, adding that CIOs in the study tended to demonstrate even greater “emotional intelligence” than the CEOs who were interviewed. There was one other common trait.
“Almost everyone we talked to had a mentor,” he said. “It could have been a colleague, a former boss, a coach, somebody that helped them along, they could talk to on the way through. And the couple that didn’t wished they had.”
According to Goransson, it will become more and more difficult just to find new IT leadership positions, let alone become the head of a company.
“Growth in the number of CIOs is not exponential,” he said. “As processes get redefined we’ll see much more consolidation, and some companies will go out of business. We’ve already seen that. It comes back to having a vision of what is happening in that industry.”
Whether CIOs want to move into a similar position somewhere else or ascend to the ranks of CEO, Mealia said the most successful candidates will be those who have demonstrated an ability to build high-performance teams. With the aging Baby Boomer demographic moving out of the workforce, the smaller pool of people to take the CIO or CEO job will likely be promoted earlier than what we see today, he said. That makes succession planning all the more important.
“Leadership consulting the fastest-growing part of our business,” he said. “Tomorrow’s leaders will have five fewer years to be successful. If you don’t start investing in them now, there is a high degree of probability that they will fail.”
Walter Puschner, vice-president of user experience IT at Microsoft Corp. in the U.S., talked to the Peer Forum about how he is growing and developing teams who are more capable of meeting the expectations of the software giant’s often-demanding employees. Three years ago, for example, he created a new role, called a business development manager, who try to work with internal executives the way a Microsoft sales rep, for example, might approach an external customer. His first business development manager was a former country manager for Microsoft in Kazakhstan, chosen in part because Pushner knew he would understand the frustrations of other Microserfs who toil in places a lot smaller than Redmond.
“We develop processes for rich environments,” he said. “Every process became overthought, complex, then thrown into smaller countries. You end up with an office of 40 people using a CRM process slated for the United States where we have thousands of people . . . you can’t put a process on a diet. You have to create new processes.”
One way to make that job easier is to start identifying communities and bringing processes into a common framework. Puschner said he and his team have consolidated what happens at Microsoft down to five key process areas. These include ideation to availability, awareness to lead, lead to order, order to fulfillment and fulfillment to customer value. No on in the organization will likely have visibility to all these areas, he note, except for two people.
“When you look around the executive boardroom, other than the CEO, the CIO is the individual who has a good understanding of what goes into the company in every aspect,” he said. “There is not a single decision in that boardroom that doesn’t affect the CIO directly.”
So why are CIOs still struggling to be seen as the executives they are? Steve Heck, Microsoft’s Canadian CIO, suggested the journey isn’t that different from those taken by other business leaders in large organizations.
“I think we’re following a similar path to the CFO role,” he said. “The CFO was the bean counter in the 70s. The CFO came from sales, marketing or legal. It wasn’t the bean counter. That role similarly matured and became integrated into thinking like a business executive. It’s a discussion about maturity, about us realizing our aspirations. We’re outgrowing the technology roots, which are now starting to feel a little bit constraining.”