Prepare to make compromises when selecting a CIO

Look over a list of CIO requirements and you come up with Superman. Great skill in communication, strategy, business knowledge, IT knowledge, consistency with culture, operational knowledge, and ability to MacGyver a storage array with left over parts from an outdoor grill assembly. In short, these descriptions provide little guidance when selecting candidates – they demand everything.

I’ve had the opportunity recently  to help companies choose their leaders of IT; specifically the CIO, leaders of the PMO and infrastructure. As someone who has redesigned hundreds of IT shops, I’v often been asked to identify attributes of successful IT leaders.  I’ve found you need two pieces of information to determine the type of skills you need for your IT leader:

  1. What are the problems and opportunities the organization will likely face over the next couple years?
  2. How capable is the current staff at handling these?

Example 1: Mid Sized organization in education sector

The Organization had outgrown its' current IT organization in size and complexity. Huge backlog of help desk requests, most IT purchases were being made without IT’s knowledge, networks were unreliable, contractors were doing most of the development work with almost no technical supervision and, by any reasonable metric, the IT portfolio of systems and applications was far more complex than needed. Finally, the existing staff consisted of very talented technical people who lived to fix technical problems.

Recommendation: The immediate focus should be on:

  1. Basic IT operations. This was step 1. Without fixing the basics of help desk operations, configuration management, project execution, oversight of contractors and half a dozen other areas, IT would never have the credibility with the business to make any changes.
  2. Managing clients. There needed to be better demand management, status reporting for failures, education on where to go with problems, IT’s role in product selection and other areas.

 It would be ideal to hire a CIO that was a strategist, innovator, change agent, expert in all IT operations, highly technical, etc. But this was a medium sized budget conscious company. They had immediate problems to fix with the basics. And the existing staff were more technical problem solvers than people who could set up IT processes.

Result – Aligned IT CIO

The person selected for leader of IT was a fixer of IT processes. He knew the internals of project initiation, vendor selection, change management, incident management and all the basics. He spent much of his time coaching his people on how to upgrade these basic processes, while simultaneously working with the business tactically to control demand. He did what he could to influence the business direction, evaluate new technologies, be more of a strategic partner, but this was not his strong suit and there was almost no time for this.

The good news is that after 18 months, many of the problems around maintaining systems and running projects had been greatly reduced if not eliminated. And the CIO is spending more time, using the additional credibility to forge a partnership with the business.

Case 2: Large organiztaion in financial services sector

The CIO of a large organization retired suddenly. IT was running reasonably well with well defined processes, well managed projects and a positive, but tactical relationship with the business; tactical in that the business told IT what they thought they needed and IT worked hard and efficiently to deliver. But IT was not in a position to influence those needs. They were a utility, not a partnership. Given the reliance on technology and innovation, there was general agreement that the business wanted more strategic help from IT.

Recommendation: Here, they didn’t need a fixer. The existing staff was highly competent in all IT processes so the CIO could be hands-off in the operation of IT and deal primarily with exception conditions. The robustness and good will from the business gave the new person credibility to make some changes in the relationship. The need was for someone who could build on this base and enable IT to be viewed as something that could enable the business. Here, the skills needed of the CIO would be more BT related. Knowledge of

  • Business processes
  • Industry
  • Business – IT measurements
  • Joint decision making
  • Education
  • Innovation
  • Culture

Result: An Empowered BT CIO

Few companies will be able to get everything they want in a CIO or leader of major functional area. The trick is to know where you can compromise.

As always, comments are invited.