The Successful CIO: It's All About Leadership

By Allen Bernard

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When Tom Trainer started his career, IT was MIS and the CIO's job wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye. Today, after 25 years in the business and IT leadership jobs with PepsiCo, Seagram's, Rebook, and Eli Lily to name a few, As the executive chairman of BTM Corp.'s Global 2000, Trainer is working to help other CIOs navigate and understand the role that has become perhaps the most complex and challenging c-suite job ever created.

Granted, the CEO still probably has the overall toughest job—the buck's got to stop somewhere. But, as IT continues its relentless domination of every aspect of business, the CIO today is tasked with not only understanding some of the most complex systems ever devised but, also—as all c-suite exec's must—being an effective navigator of the often uncertain and confounding seas of business.

It's not that CIOs are particularly inept when it comes to business, it's just that most of today's CIOs have come from a technology background. Up until the beginning of this decade, that was just fine. IT was there to improve processes and take orders. Now, however, IT and the technologies that support it are in the vanguard—driving business forward in ways that were hardly contemplatable just 10 short years ago.

So, in that light, what does it take to be successful as a CIO today? Well, outside of some inherent smarts and a deep understanding of the IT systems (not necessarily the software or hardware, mind you) that support the business, it takes the ability to lead, says Trainer. The ability to get disparate and often contentious groups to talk to one another and—dare it be said—agree on a course of action. It takes someone with a thick skin who is not afraid to do what needs to be done.

"Where does one begin?," says Trainer. "What it doesn't take is someone who is in love with bits and bytes and the buzzwords and all of that stuff. What it doesn't take is someone isolated in an ivory tower somewhere.

"What it does take is someone who can communicate in the English language, speaking of the Western world, and communicate and listen to what the business people are saying they need and working with them to determine the possibilities. Without that communication void bridged, it's just a repeat of old history.

"What it takes is a level of maturity, first and foremost. Truity of thinking. Poise and presence. The ability to communicate very well both within IT to explain to the people what and why and when and how and what's in it for them. The CIO is very much a bridge between the business and IT. In most companies, or more and more companies, the CIO is a member of the executive committee or the operating committee or whatever—is a colleague, should be a colleague, of the other functional heads of the business."

Buy In

Perhaps, most important of all, it takes a company that understands IT's new role in business. Without this, all the head banging in the world isn't going to morph your existing operations into world-class. For the sake of this discussion, we are assuming you find yourself in a organization looking to IT for transformative change and business innovation, i.e., he CEO's on board and is backing your play.

According to Trainer, upwards of 80% of companies today are still struggling with a '80's and '90's mindset: that IT is there to simplify and support business processes, not lead the way into new frontiers. "However, the world has changed … particularly in this decade in terms of the vast capabilities that can be brought to bear and these companies, the 80%, run the risk of being left further behind.

"I think it's fair to say that over the last few years … there are more CIOs around who are able to (be bridge builders). We're still transitioning from the era where the head of IT is the person who started as a operator. There are few that have (solid leadership skills) and, those that do, are making millions of dollars and are in great demand. So, there's an evolution that has begun and the evolution will continue."

If you're not one of the ones already making millions then, to begin this process, you need to have good staffing skills as well as communication skills and vision. You can't do this alone. You have to get the right people doing the right jobs. You need to also put in place a team that will allow you, as the CIO, to get away from the day-to-day. Once this is done, you get out into the company to see what your customers really think about and need from IT.

Trainer's Personal Journey

Trainer's success as a CIO hinges on the concepts he shares here, but he didn't come by them overnight. It took years for him to work his way through the morass of corporate culture and figure out what really worked. Finally, he was able to set his own terms when taking on new positions and that is when he could put his money where his mouth was.

"They were all successful companies and they wanted to be a lot more successful. And they all had an 'Ah Ha' moment at one point in time in the boardroom—this is where we are, this is where we want to go, and we realize that we can't get there from here without a world-class IT organization.

"In each case they had figured out their business model that they felt was going to be the winner. The (IT organization) we have is a far distance from there. Nobody's happy with it. We're leaking money. Customer satisfaction is way down and there's a realization … the key performance indicators that will tell you if you're winning in the various functions of the business but, by the way, every single one of them is dependent on fully-functioning, well-invested, high-performing IT. And, if you don't have it, you better go get it. Otherwise you're throwing good money after bad.

"So, in each of those companies, they had gone through those pains. They had realized we need a world-class IT. We don't have it. We don't have the leadership. We don't know what we're getting for our money—we just know where unhappy with it. So, they were ready to bite the bullet."

Okay, so Trainer got with good companies that wanted to be better. This is table stakes in your game of Success. You still have to make good on your vision of what IT is, can be, and what it can do for your company. This is challenging, make no mistake. Even with a company's leadership on board you will meet resistance—there is something like 23 different ways humans resist change. It's is overcoming this human resistance, not the technical Snafus, that will, as it was for Trainer, be your most daunting accomplishment.

"You have the internal challenge within IT—you have to win the hearts and minds of the IT organization and have them, in many cases, change the way they've been doing things for 20 years. And overcome the human tendencies of the leaders you're inheriting who say, 'Why didn't I get that job?' and 'Maybe I'll just lay low until this guy leaves and maybe torpedo a few things' and so on.

"So, there's a natural resistance in the first six months to a year within your IT organization that you just have to be very strong and very honest and very direct and change what needs to be changed and change whoever needs to be changed.

"In the business, I think the far biggest challenge was putting in appropriate governance. Governance is a broad term but, if you boil it all down to a net-net-net, it is getting a commitment (and absolutely having it followed through) to work together, make investment decision together, manage projects together. Putting discipline in place where people show up for meetings … they're participating, they're bringing their opinions to the table and, if they don’t have an opinion, they shouldn't be in the meeting. And once the decision is made, you get behind it and make it happen.

"Easier said than done and each culture has a different way of subverting it. You have to be aware of it and get on with it and do the job as a leader and show up as a leader."

But, if you do, the rewards can be great. Leadership only comes naturally to a few. The rest of us have to learn. But, it can be learned. And that is perhaps the best part of Trainer's message—that you do not have be pigeon-holed into "career is over" just because you came into the CIO's job from, dare it be said, IT.

"The CIOs of today are still kind of making up as they go along to a degree. CIO relating to 'Career is Over' is alive and well. (But) … the body of validation is growing quickly now. I think as the CIOs move into the future there will be more help available."

Other installments in the Successful CIO series:

 From Tactical to Strategic: Understanding Industry is Key

 CIO Update Q&A with UPS

 CIO Update Q&A with Southwest Airlines

 CIO Update Q&A with IBM