IT Leadership - The Rise of the New CIO

By Pam Baker

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In an age when incredibly fast change is the only constant, it is remarkable that any given CIO stays in position longer than a single CPU refresh cycle. Yet many have successfully remained in place, but not without some serious, and repeated, repositioning.

In the beginning, legacy systems offered CIOs a degree of job security; after all they were one of very few people who knew the code! Then legacy systems began to succumb to out-of-the-box thinking which entailed buying boxed software off the shelf. Now there’s software-as–a-service (SaaS) that exists in the Cloud rather than on-premise, thereby substantially reducing the size and impact of the physical data center―the epicenter of the CIOs power. However, as dynamic as each of these forces are, it isn’t just the technical changes that are reshaping the CIO job, it is also the change in the people who vie for the position.

“The new crop of CIOs is forward-thinking and very tech savvy compared to the older generation of CIOs who are slow to react, calculating, afraid of trying new things, and more investigative on new technologies,” said Mark Damphousse, CTO of TriNET Systems. “The old CIO guard wants to study and think and forecast and plot how to use new technology, while newer CIOs will just dive right in."

The younger generation grew up with the Internet and cell phones and have used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media since its inception. “As a result, they aren’t afraid of trying new things, reaching out for emerging technology, seeking the ‘next best thing’ on the market,” he said.

But is this a fair generational assessment, a hard-wired difference in brain-age or merely an attitudinal difference between winners and losers?

“Yes, I agree that there is a shift occurring in the CIO ranks but it's not just the new versus existing CIOs,” said Steve Tarr, principal of Steve Tarr Consulting and adjunct professor at Washington State University. “It is more around social skills and social technology, and they do go together. Existing CIO's share this with newer CIO's if they have made the effort to use social media with substance.”

In effect, today’s successful CIO is coming out of the data closet and building a platform for his or her own brand identity both inside and outside company walls.

“A high-level of emotional intelligence, i.e. self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management, is critical for the senior technology leader to be invited into the boardroom,” said Kim Batson, the CIO coach at Career Management Coaching. “CIOs should be paying as much attention to these soft skills as their hard skills of technical, financial and business acumen.”

Is this new found need for communicative and self-promotion skills borne out of a tighter job market following a grueling recession? No, say the experts. But the role of CIO has been redefined, which in turn allows a broader field of contenders to compete for the title. Batson said senior technology leaders are now competing with other functional business leaders in finance, operations and even with sales vice presidents for CIO positions. Technology leaders, of course, have an advantage because of their technical expertise, “but will be at a disadvantage if they neglect to fully understand business (not just IT) strategy, operations, external customers, and the lines of business and be ‘growth-strategists.’”

The new crop of CIOs is adept at building an executive brand to stay “top-of-mind” with their target audience and thus harvest the best opportunities.

“They should be able to articulate their personal value-add and differentiation to their current, and future employers, to compete in the marketplace,” said Batson. “In addition, their brand should be exuded in a strong online identity and they should not wait to do this. They should prepare now. It takes time for a brand to be recognized and a strategy put in place to make it.”

But this new found level of openness is not contained to self-promotion. The new crop of CIOs knows how to wield it to secure a more powerful seat in the boardroom.

"Today's CIO is at a crossroads: clearly communicate the value of IT, or continue to be seen as a cost center and commodity that is not core to the business,” said Sunny Gupta, CEO of Apptio. “This new role calls for CIOs to 'open their kimonos' and provide business leaders with insight into the cost and quality of IT.

“If old-school CIOs transition into this modern approach, their changes will usher a new era of strategic IT management and a true partnership between IT and the business."

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous cover stories for international, national and regional media from women's and general interest to finance, business and technology magazines, online content and newspapers; analytical studies on technology; and, six books. She is a member National Press Club and Avant Guild/Mediabistro.com. She was 2004 nominee for the Templeton Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion (UK) and wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making.