The Essential Roles of the CIO
by Bruce Ballengee
President, Pariveda Solutions

A laundry list of business practices and personal characteristic suggestions barrages CIOs no matter where they look. Recently, CIO Magazine ran a cover titled “How to Run IT Like a Business” (May 1, 2004), listing forty seven business practices followed by top-tier IT organizations.  The report does not offer up what the CIO should do personally as the head of such a business. Other authors have suggested laundry lists of laudable personal characteristics for CIOs – “visionary, team player, strategist, leader, politician, etc.”  I am left wishing all our elected officials from presidents down to mayors were so qualified. And I definitely want to use these lists to interview any surgeon before they operate on me or a loved one.  

CIOs, even the very best, cannot master fifty practices.  To execute superbly every day as a CIO, he or she needs a mantra to adhere to amidst all challenges and distractions.  What can we really boil down as the true essence of the CIO role?  What practical behaviors are essential and uniquely important for a CIO, helping him or her succeed against the odds?  While these behaviors may be helpful to all members of the executive team, are they relevant to the CIO?  Given this somewhat daunting task, consider the following while pondering these questions. 

We need a framework for understanding the CIO’s role in the context of the larger enterprise and executive team.  Whether the CIO goes by “Chief Information Officer” or some less auspicious title, he or she stands at the nexus of information technology and business.  With one foot on either side of the fault line between business and technology, the CIO must bear the burden of aligning his or her organization with the rest of the business.  While this reflects reality for every support function (e.g., finance and marketing), these groups are more mature in the business world than information technology.  Business has embraced technology, yet we have just entered the “golden age” of technology-business integration.  The CIO must possess skills that work on both sides of the chasm. 

It sounds like a role suitable for a Greek titan (Atlas comes to mind), but unlike an immortal with time on their hands, the CIO has an average job tenancy of only thirty months.  The CIO cannot succeed by merely straddling the divide and enduring.  Instead, he or she must assume multiple roles in their daily work life.  Consider three (a very doable number):  negotiator, talent scout and networker.    


IT spending represents almost fifty percent of annual corporate capital expenditures.  No surprise, when you calculate the total cost for an ERP, SCM or CRM solution.  In addition, IT often leads the enterprise in outsourcing where many issues center on the structure of the contract.  Most CIOs work in small to medium sized businesses without sophisticated IT procurement departments.  They are often on point for IT-related contracts. 

Committing to a rigorous negotiation discipline requires effort and discipline.  The CIO must understand their suppliers’ business and sales models to obtain the best combination of price, quality and schedule for hardware, software and services that leads to a long-term win-win solution.  With large established hardware, software and services providers, the CIO’s goal is to level the playing field – driving the best cost, service levels, etc.  If she or he seeks business innovation through technology, this often means working with emerging suppliers.  Negotiating with an innovative niche player has added nuances because of the very real influence you can have over the product or service’s future direction. 

A skilled negotiator can often save twenty to thirty percent of the five year total cost of ownership and achieve a better long-term fit.  Well worth the effort.  Achieving win-win solutions is crucial for enduring success, as well as directly addressing aspects of the IT – business alignment challenge.  


CIOs have one clear option – focus on acquiring wisdom over knowledge, information and data.    Each can be obtained by developing a rich network of business relationships, both inside and outside the enterprise.  But the gold standard for CIO networking is to connect with other “wisdom-seekers” across a variety of disciplines outside the enterprise.   

Consider three external relationships the CIO should nurture.  The CIO should develop life time relationships with salespeople, consultants and executive recruiters, meeting with each one at least several times a year. 

First, the consummate salesperson can orchestrate the big IT deal, especially within your enterprise. They have demonstrated successful negotiation skills in your business environment. They can assess an executive team and gain access to team members with whom the CIO might otherwise not be able to obtain an appointment.  There is much to learn from a top flight salesperson.  The CIO can learn both general principles and best practices; and, if the salesperson has sold into their current organization, deep insight into their own executive team players’ minds and motivations.   

Second, the professional consultant often has a more current and broader perspective on your industry than anyone inside your enterprise.  They achieved, and maintain, this by carefully tending their network.  The consultant’s network is usually the life blood of their business.  Through a consultant, the CIO can obtain unique insight into their industry as well as learn networking best practices.  A good consultant will show you the how’s, who’s and where’s of networking. 

Finally, the executive recruiter serves as a gateway for talent into and out of the IT organization and the enterprise.  A top flight recruiter at the junior executive and above level is a shrewd judge of talent and hones their skill every day.  They will know a great deal about the supply and demand for IT talent in your markets. 

Talent Scout

While most business roles can benefit from having the right talent in the right place, IT represents an almost pure knowledge worker play where the impact of talent is most evident.  Often the most junior IT position requires analytical skill, independent decision-making and interaction with stakeholders from multiple communities.  More senior positions require creative and imaginative thinking.  These higher orders of work describe the skills of the quintessential knowledge worker.   

In IT, talent is at a premium.  This is best illustrated by empirical studies in developer productivity, where the exceptional individual is typically six to seven times more productive than their average peer.  As the head of IT, the CIO must master a three ring circus of specialists and generalists in multiple technologies, across a range of business functions and leadership capabilities from solo performer to small team lead to large project manager.  The CIO must find candidates with demonstrated capabilities, as well as grow them quickly within the crucible of the IT organization.  This means pouring through resumes and filtering out ninety-five to ninety-eight percent before scheduling the first interview.  It means a minimum of four interviews with a cross-section of appropriate skills and levels before the CIO (or one of their direct reports in very large or dispersed IT organizations) personally interviews every finalist, regardless of level.  

This appears on its face to require an inordinate amount of effort for the CIO and their organization.  Consider the following.  Talent trumps process and technology.  A great team of people can make a good ERP solution a smashing success and a mediocre solution meet expectations.  A mediocre team can turn the best ERP solution into an IT black eye – often damaging the IT organization’s reputation with the business for years to come.  Why not spend a fraction of the time IT spends selecting an ERP, SCM or CRM solution filling each open position and developing that talent once it is onboard?   

If I could only be proficient in one role, I would choose talent scout. 

You may have noticed some common themes throughout.  First, each can be learned.  None require special talent to become proficient.  While talent helps, focused practice and some outside training or assistance can lead to positive results.  Second, each reinforces the other.  A good negotiator can acquire talent and build a network more readily than one who cannot.  A good talent scout can judge the people quality of their suppliers and select people to network with effectively more easily than one who has not honed their talent acquisition and development skills.  A good networker has access to advisors of talent and studied opinions of suppliers to fill their personal knowledge gaps in even the most challenging negotiation.   

All three distill down to people skills – not business savvy or technical know how.  One of Gerald Weinberg’s best known laws of consulting states that at the root of every problem or opportunity lays a people related challenge.  Chase fifty best practices for your IT organization if you must, but keep refining your people abilities for certain.



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