CIO Success: Nature or Nurture?

I bet you've heard this before: The CIO must "get a seat" at the executive table. Once there, he must convince others that IT is strategic to the organisation, thereby securing his own destiny. There are a host of other mandates that go along with this advice, such as "develop a good relationship with business stakeholders."

Despite their best attempts, however, some CIOs are never elevated (figuratively or literally) from the basement of the organszation. Why is that?

Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a number of seasoned IT managers. We were talking about some of the sage advice that is often given to CIOs, such as the above instructions. Eventually, the topic turned to what I thought was a good question: How much control does the typical CIO really have over his destiny?

I look at this as a sort of nature vs. nurture question. Nature vs. nurture has to do with how much of one's behavior and personality is predetermined by genetics and how much is shaped by environmental factors. Applied to the destiny of CIOs, nature vs. nurture is a way to look at how much of a CIO's success depends on his performance and how much is predetermined by the attitude, culture and strategy of the firm in which he works.

Advice to CIOs (including that given in my own column) almost always implies that the CIO is the master of his destiny. All he has to do is be a highly competent technologist, become a savvy business person and forge successful relationships with other business executives. Then IT becomes strategic, and the CIO gallops off to success.

This would be a good scenario, but intuition and our own experiences tell us that this is not always the way it happens.

I have talked with many CIOs who have shared their frustration about some of the roadblocks they face in making IT strategic and in securing their own place in the organisation. These roadblocks often include the following:

  • The CEO or CFO (or both) doesn't think IT is strategic and is unlikely to be persuaded that it is.
  • IT has always been seen as "overhead" or a cost center in the company.
  • The corporate executives don't really understand what IT does, nor do they wish to. Some will say these are merely cop-outs -- ways for a CIO to escape his own responsibility. Certainly, some CIOs use statements like these to excuse their failure.
But I think that some CIOs face real roadblocks that virtually nobody could overcome. For example, if the CEO is convinced that IT is merely a utility -- or worse, a necessary evil -- how likely is it that even a good CIO can convince him otherwise?

I suspect that the majority of CIOs and IT managers -- even those facing some of the major challenges previously discussed -- can still impact their destiny. But a smaller percentage (perhaps 20%) may work in organizations where the attitude toward IT makes it almost impossible for IT to ever be seen as strategic.

As an IT professional and potential or current CIO, you need to think about this when you look at career opportunities. If you want a seat at the executive table and want to oversee a strategic IT group, you'd better make sure that the CEO's attitude and the corporate culture support that ambition. Don't assume that you can change the CEO's mind.

Conversely, if you are content to be the keeper of infrastructure and head of an IT utility, find an organization where that vision matches the top executive's idea of "great IT."

Most of you do have some control over your destiny. You must continue to provide reliable and low-cost infrastructure services while developing strong relationships with business leaders. You must help the business to understand how it can use IT to accomplish its goals. You must determine the staffing mix that will help you do all this.

But for those in the minority, who have little or no control over your destiny, there's not a whole lot you can do except understand the situation you face. And you might want to look for another job.

Barbara Gomolski, a former Computerworld reporter, is a vice president at Gartner, where she focuses on IT financial management. Contact her at barbgomolski@yahoo.com.

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