Alignment: Hiring the Right CIO - Page 1

Sep 17, 2007

Steve O'Connor

The average tenure of CIOs has become notoriously short. Indeed, more than a few major, brand-name companies have been seen hiring new CIOs almost yearly.

Often (as insiders will sometimes share), these firms are caught in a vicious cycle—hiring each new CIO in the belief that his or her strengths will somehow fix the problems caused by their predecessor’s weaknesses. Since no CIO is perfect, however, the cycle can run for many years, resulting in thrashing of priorities and untold missed opportunities.

But even when a CIO stays on the job for years at a time, that widely-sought Holy Grail—“alignment” between IT and business strategies—often remains an elusive goal. What’s going on here?

Perhaps, this new generation of CIOs’ skills and capabilities are not quite up to the jobs they’re being asked to do. And, this mismatch is bound to grow worse as companies leverage IT more intensely. Arguably, the problem actually begins with the fact that in most executive suites, there’s surprisingly little understanding of what kind of CIO is actually needed, what skills are required to lead IT for the enterprise as it pursues its strategy in its chosen markets.

The Skill Set

While there is pressure for today’s CIO to master and stay current on computer technology, the more critical skills are related to more traditional aspects of business management. As head of perhaps the most complex operation in any enterprise, the CIO is responsible for what amounts to a sizeable and complete business on its own.

And so, this executive’s success depends heavily on skills in finance, leadership, communication, strategic thinking and planning, and, perhaps most important, in understanding what customers want and how best to get it to them.

Technical savvy is, of course, indispensable. The CIO must understand technology and its capabilities well enough to grasp how all of the computing services and products on which an enterprise depends fit and work together. Similarly, the CIO has to know enough to properly evaluate the stream of new products being promoted by outside suppliers, and filter their (sometimes exaggerated) claims.

On top of that, business skills greatly amplify the effectiveness and value of these technical skills. Ideally, the CIO will have previous experience in managing a large business unit and thereby developed an on-the-job understanding of various line-of-business functions, and the administrative aspects of running them.

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Of particular importance is financial acumen. As much as the CEO and CFO, the CIO must truly understand the other business units in the enterprise, each with its own goals, metrics and end-customers. These are, after all, the CIO’s direct customers. By understanding the financial drivers of those businesses, the CIO will have a much better chance of getting the right mix of services acquired, developed and delivered at the right price and with maximum value. Financial acumen is, in short, an absolute must for getting IT truly “aligned” with the business as a whole.

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