CIOs: Are you your CEO's business partner or their gimp?
A Machiavellian guide for the modern CIO
Secret CIO The title CIO is often suggested, mostly as satire, to stand for Career Is Over, usually by bitter people who applied for the job but didn’t get it.
The joke isn't true but nor is it totally without foundation, because the days of the career CIO seem to be coming to an end.
These days CIO is often a position taken by someone on an upward trajectory who knows it will be a stint in purgatory while they learn about the components that make modern businesses tick. These folks expect it won't be their last career stop.
They also know being a CIO exposes them to nasty traps.
To understand how, CIOs' reporting lines give away quite a bit of the story. Companies in the business of IT have the CIO function (often switched to CTO to give it more propeller-hat cred) reporting directly to the CEO.
Outside of the IT business this is a much rarer situation. Fortune 500 CIOs more often than not report to the CFO, who generally greets each new CIO with a T-shirt reading “I promise not to drop any cost bombs”. The new CIO then discovers the team they have inherited are the equivalent of B52 pilots hellbent on carpet-bombing missions (I am going to indulge in brutal generalisation throughout this piece for either narrative or comedy reasons – both are equally important).
This will of course create tension between the CIO and CFO.
The bad news is the new CIO can also expect tension with all other C-level executives.
Chief Marketing Officer: 'I want all the toys'
Marketing organisations use terms like “Living the space”, “Connected with the consumer”, and “Exploring new consumer mediums” as excuses to get access to the latest and greatest toys. The CIO is forced into either incorporating this technology (and the cost of connecting it) into their strategy or turning a blind eye to the rampant consumerisation of client equipment (while also bearing the cost of connecting and unofficially supporting it).
This wouldn’t be so bad on its own, because CIOs secretly like the way consumerisation is heading.
But CMOs' next issue isn’t so easily covered up.
That issue is their conviction that you have the security, cost and performance of their web assets as your number one priority despite the fact that they will fight you to the death for any semblance of control over the security, cost or performance of their web assets.
Every website is built on the drunken whim of a marketing guy who has spent the day at the pub with very clever agency people whose sole purpose it is to ply the marketing community with alcohol until websites fall out. These agency wolves have learned that a drunken marketeer is the equivalent of a blind and lame springbok dropping out of the herd. The flashing of claws and gnashing of teeth that follows a good long lunch sees websites sprayed around in a blast radius from the mangled corpse of this analogy.
Marketing agencies have also learned to make the implementation of sites cheap. Implementation costs are usually quite heavily scrutinised and subject to competitive tendering.
Ongoing costs, on the other hand, are the subject of hushed conversation in the hallways and boardrooms of every full service marketing agency in the world. "They never want to turn it off!" they giggle to each other.
I have a mental picture of a cabal of hooded, candle-toting ad agency CEOs standing around a pentagram containing the flayed corpse of an agency rep who let slip that a dedicated physical server for your website (for the majority of sites) is not particularly necessary or good value for money.
It is also a known fact that the security of a website can be directly correlated to the number of tattoos on the recently graduated designer who got the job of throwing the site together for go-live the next day (which also explains why a website's colour palette gets two weeks of workshops but the actual site-build happens the day before it goes live).
Despite all of these factors, it somehow ends up being IT's job (usually three minutes after the first time the site gets hacked) to keep web content under control, and solving this problem in a collaborative way gets you a seat at the table rather than a gimp suit and a locked box in the corner.
The best advice I can give you for this relationship is to wait until your CMO cruises past on his Segway, then jam a steel rod into the wheels. Once he has flown over the handlebars and is laying dazed on the ground, jump on him, pin him to the ground and insist that you will not stop giving him wet willies until he concedes that websites, content management, coding standards and hosting architecture are a shared responsibility between IT and marketing and that you need to be given appropriate governance over these things prior to taking any responsibility for it going wrong.
With those ground rules established, you'll get on famously.
Chief Finance Officer: 'Money is much more exciting than anything it buys'
You need to be a special type of person to be really into finance as a career. Those who rise to the top of the profession are the most special of all.
CIOs need to walk a fine line when building a relationship with the CFO. As noted above, CFOs view CIOs as a source of unpleasant balance sheet surprises.
How, then, to get them to put away the cost management scalpel, stop them using words like "amortisation", and get them to stop pulling out their career management chainsaw?
It is a rare CFO indeed who is interested in doing anything new. You can’t demonstrate a cost reduction on something you are doing for the first time and this confuses them. The technology industry reinvents itself every 18 months, the finance industry reinvents itself... ummmm, well it hasn’t yet, but we live in hope. (Even the change from the barter system to a system based on currency relies on us all pretending that we are bartering invisible gold.)
Even though they won’t admit it out loud, CFOs secretly think that there is nothing that can’t be done with either Excel or - in the most extreme scenarios - a Microsoft Access database. While you are standing there pitching that shiny new ERP project to them they are thinking “five spreadsheets and two Access databases max”.
The big consultancies all know this; Excel skills are the primary quality they look for when loitering outside university gates wearing trench coats and promising boiled sweets to the children passing by. All partners at big consultancies have only reached that level because they have learned the secret skill of making a pivot table do a complete rendition of that Kevin Bacon sequence from Flashdance.
So how do you get the CFO to put away the ball gag and the riding crop and let you attend all the interesting M&A meetings?
Show them you control their fate. One way to do this is buy 1,000 lima beans and some coloured pens and dump the lot – minus bean 672 – on the CFO's desk.
About three days later, when the CFO is starting to show signs of stress, visit the dishevelled and pale creature that now hisses at you from the dark corner and give them bean 672.
The look of naked lust, longing, gratitude and relief on his face may move you to tears, but be strong as this experience will be enough to set your relationship off to a spectacular start and by the end of the day you are more than likely to be totally plastered, in a tattoo parlour on the wrong side of town both having 672 permanently etched onto your preferred tattoo-bearing buttock.
The minor C-levels
I am going to switch to semi-serious mode now to explain how to get off to a good start with the big cheese, the boss, the head honcho, etc, but first I will explain why I left a couple of other C-words out.
Chief R&D Officer: These guys totally think they could run IT better than you.
Don’t take offence; they totally think they could run every department better than the person responsible for it. It is a character flaw of the very intelligent. He or she is a smart operator, but that intellect didn’t leave any room for a personality or sense of social appropriateness.
They think that they know better than everyone and there is no point trying to convince them otherwise.
If they can remain convinced that socks and sandals is a perfectly good fashion combination, how on earth are you going to convince them that they don’t need a 16-core Xeon server connected to a Fibre Channel SAN for their home theatre set-up?
Leave this relationship alone, it is impossible to win and everyone else ignores them anyway.
- Chief Supply Chain officer – This one doesn’t need any tricks, he is probably a good guy in a tough job and is easy enough to get on side just by showing an interest in what he does (no one else tends to). Slipping the occasional “Robotics Monthly” journal into his executive bathroom would also go a long way towards nurturing a healthy relationship.
Chief Executive Officer: 'I am the state'
The key to understanding your CEO is to recognise that he or she believes the I in CIO stands for three things.
One is information, which needs no further explanation.
The second is insight, which is what a CEO wants from information.
The third I is “immediately”, which is when your CEO wants information turned into insight.
Your CEO therefore wants you to be a CIIIO – a Chief Information and Immediate Insight Officer.
Every CEO in the world wants better quality information faster. The days of waiting for month-end (or even quarter-end) to see what has been going on are over. They want information in real time and if you have followed the advice above you have just cemented a set of relationships that will help you deliver just that.
But to be an effective CIIIO, your work is not done.
CIIIOs hit the road
It's time to hit the shop floor. Call in that promise from the sales guy for access to his people. Go out on sales visits, sit through pitches, man the tills, stock the shelves. Whatever your companies sales execution process is, get familiar with it. What technology are they using? Your average sales person has a technology quotient (TQ) that extends to a notepad and a pen, this approach results in people performing batch jobs at the end of every day with data that they want their sales manager to see. Switching this process to a real-time, per-sales-visit, per-transaction process that tracks what is being done throughout the day is an easy way to kick off your real-time data initiative.
Now let’s get to know marketing better. It won’t be fun, you will be doing it strictly for research purposes, but go and get drunk with the CMO and his agency wolves. Notice how the wolves are always a couple of drinks behind? Let’s fix that. A couple of shots of green chartreuse later they will be spraying agency secrets against the wall in the lane behind the bar.
Once you have tamed the wolves you will be in a better position to start preparing the marketing people for their sojourn into the world of real time. A common architectural platform for your web content combined with a common suite of web analytics and content management will allow you to analyse the impact of campaigns in real time. Measuring every asset in a common way will allow you to ignore ego bias and assess each facet of the campaign in a facts based manner.
Next comes finance data. What interests the CFO and what interests the CEO are two different things. CFOs are keen on the exceptional items in a balance sheet, they are more interesting to them as they usually represent the culmination of a large amount of disruptive work by the finance organisation.
It isn’t that the CEO doesn’t care about exceptional items, it is just that they represent decisions the CEO made in the past. Sales data, on the other hand, is a strong indicator of the success of those historical decisions and an even stronger indicator for the future. Sales data is the alpha and the omega for CEOs. Currency exposure, risk statements, spend against targets etc are all just the icing on the sales data cake.
Remember that the CEO is required to have tasty pieces of information for the board every month, so make sure he or she has them. (Why is it that whenever I think of board members I get a mental image of those two grumpy old men in the stalls on the Muppet Show?)
We now have all the components for the first and most important data feed you will give to your CEO. Marketing Activity + Sales Activity = Money.
Every subsequent report you deliver will have complementary information relating to the above - such as market share, margin, volume growth etc - but the primary report is a solid foundation for your CEO to measure his or her performance against.
The beauty of this is that this report is going to keep all the other C words busy enough to leave you alone. If marketing spend doesn’t result in a sales peak then questions will be asked. If the sales activity is not resulting in enough money, the sales guy has a job to do. Is money out exceeding money in? The the CFO needs to break out the budget hatchet.
Put it on their iPad, in pretty colours, pimp it out with data from public APIs and, most importantly, make it theirs. Give it a user experience that caters to the CFO, make sure it uses language your finance bod uses.
Over time you will be able to use this same approach to generate equally customised and relevant data feeds for the other C Words (except the R&D guy, ignore him) that will get you a seat at the big table and hopefully you will avoid hearing the words:
CEO: Where is the CIO?
CFO: “The CIO is sleeping.”
CEO: “Well I guess you’re gonna have to go wake him up now, won’t you?” ®
Warren Burns has held senior global roles at Universal Music and the consumer goods giant Unilever, where he served as Head of Innovation and was responsible for leading the Global Innovation practice and was instrumental in delivering high profile projects such as the future Ice Cream Cabinet.
Warren also holds advisory board positions for a number of Australian businesses and is a research associate for the Leading Edge Forum Executive Advisory Programme.
His consultancy, BurnsRED, helps customers understand how emerging technology will impact their business.
Time for some disclaimers. The views contained in this article are the views of my employer. As I am my employer it would be weird if they didn’t.
In an age when industrial equipment is required to have a sticker that says “Not for internal use” I feel compelled to point out than very little of my advice is designed to be taken literally.
I do, from time to time, make up words. I feel no guilt about this.
Some people may find the term “C Word” offensive, it is their sick mind that has made this the case; the term obviously refers to people who have “chief” in their title. Filthy buggers.
In no way am I implying that heads of sales divisions have substance abuse problems, it is a trick I learned through trial-and-error. I don’t understand the science behind it.