Business Skills Essential Ingredient to Success

By Allen Bernard

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Some things change, some things stay the same. In IT it's always a little of both. For CIOs looking to advance their careers beyond just managing a budget and keeping the email servers running, 2007 will look much the same the same as 2006. But the trend propelling IT leaders to better understand the businesses they support will continue to evolve and play an increasingly important role in their success.

While this has been the case for some time now, as technology allows businesses greater and greater flexibility in its application and use, CIOs will have to understand more of how their organizations run internally and interact externally if they are to take a seat at the executive roundtable and help guide their businesses.

Sell Your Success

Many IT pros struggle more than most when it comes to telling people about what they do, where they have helped the business and what value their department brings to the business as a whole.

And this is just wrong, said Forrester Analyst and former CIO, Laurie Orlov. If you want to be a success as a CIO, then tell everyone about your success. Market yourself and your organization.

"A lot of things in companies are really difficult to keep a secret about but IT has managed to obscure what it's doing through jargon or lack of (marketing)."

This is the No.1 reason why IT is considered a cost-center instead of a business enabler. If you're feeling undervalued, for example, because management doesn't see your worth: sell yourself. If there is a lack of understanding about what IT does and why it is valuable to the company, you guessed it, sell, sell, sell (or market, market, market, depending on which term you are more comfortable with—the end result is the same).

This because most things are not self-evident. So, even though it may seem obvious to you that the mail server hasn't been down in two years, it's a safe bet no one else outside of IT has even noticed. They just take it for granted now.

Even if the company wants nothing more than the lights on "not to sell yourself is to fall out of favor," said Orlov. "There's always something to explain about what IT is doing for the company."

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This is, of course, only if you want to take that seat. If your company does not and will not view your job and IT as a strategic asset (as is the case in about 60% of businesses today) and you are comfortable in that role, then, you are already successful and don't need to take on the added strain of learning the business.

But if you yearn to do more, want to feel more valued, want your ideas and insights taken seriously, then, you have to think along the lines of the business, not, IT.

"I think the expectation today is CIOs have much more business acumen than in years past," said Forrester Analyst and former CIO, Laurie Orlov. "That they are capable and they do understand the business their firms are in and how to influence business drivers with technology such as boosting market share, growing revenues and lowering cost and that they can speak to the business people in business terms."

Seems simple enough, but it turns out this particular CIO is still a relative rarity. After years of being considered cost-center managers, most of today's CIOs are still struggling with the transition between being a good manager of IT and taking the next step to becoming a true business partner; a partner capable and willing to take on the extra burdens and responsibilities associated with the shotgun marriage business and IT are currently in the middle of.

"People who have been in an IT job for a long time have not had the opportunity to go outside that company, to get the experience they need at the next level for the seat at the table," said Paul Lemerise, a partner at Tatum, LLC and currently serving as interim CIO at Nature Made Vitamins. "The job sort of out grows them.

"A lot of CIOs, COOs, CFOs have told me, 'Well, you know, that's great. We love to have them. We're glad we have that expertise, but I can't have a business conversation with that individual."

And that's the rub. That's what makes all the difference between being a CIO in title and meeting a more robust definition of the role, said Dan Gingras, also a Tatum, LLC partner, former CIO and CIO Update contributing author.

It can be a hard distinction to get across. Doing your job, helping your business understand what technology can do for it, enabling process streamlining and transformation, etc., are functions of IT and, by default, part of your job. And this can be enough—if that is what you and your company are comfortable with. If this is the case, then IT at your company probably falls into the "solid utility" category, said Forrester's Orlov.

But if more is being demanded of you and IT then you have to understand the business you are in—not just your company but the business in relation to your competitors, who your customers are, the concerns of your business unit leaders, how your company differentiates itself in the market (if it does of course), etc., said Gingras. This would put IT and you into the "trusted supplier" category.

The third category that IT fits into at a given company is "core strategic." This the one that this article is about and the one many CIOs today are either trying to get to or are being forced by change to understand.

In this category the CIO's job is really about business, not technology. You can hire a CTO to cover that. In this category, you have be bilingual, speaking fluently the language of both business and technology terms. Here you are a member of the executive committee setting the direction for the business. Execution of installed technology (i.e., keeping the lights on), at this level, is just a given.

This is also the category with the most uneven terrain; especially if you are among the first to hold this position at your firm—don't be surprised if you are.

If you are in this position or on your way, Lemerise has a few suggestions to help you navigate these uncharted and often choppy waters:

  • Be a business partner first. Take technology out of the conversation.
  • Be strategic in your thinking but tactical in your actions. You have to see the future and relate where you are today compared to where you are going.
  • You have to have tremendous people/communication skills.
  • Be a mentor. Teach the rest of the company where and how IT can help them do their jobs better.
  • Be proactive keeping the company current when it comes to technology. Pay attention to the trades. Establish a peer network you trust to bounce ideas off of.