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Maintaining strategic business relationships between the CEO and CIO

William Brennan, CEO at Forsythe Technologies, a technology solutions provider, keeps his company's information technology initiatives focused on driving strategic business value as an essential component of his job. Brennan presented the opening keynote at the recent Fusion 2011 CEO-CIO Symposium addressing the importance and significance of a strong working relationship between the CEO and the Chief Information Officer.

Bill Brennan
“The CEO isn't all-seeing and there are multiple priorities in the business, so there has to be some tie breaking, Brennan said.” At Forsythe, there's no room for any gap between the CEO and the CIO, and both of them work at ensuring that IT and the business are on the same track.

When he was named president of Forsythe in 2005, Brennan brought in Daniel Rodgers as CIO and embarked on a five-year program that resulted in changing every process and every system. They doubled the company's business with the same headcount.

For Brennan, terms like alignment and even integration are too weak. He prefers to say he and Rodgers share priorities.

“The CEO has to give the CIO some air cover or he gets chewed up,” explained Brennan. “Rodgers and I will be on the same page on priorities and someone in systems or business comes in with his own high priorities and wants to know why IT isn't stepping up. If I don't have his back, he will get chewed up by every line of business.” Sometimes the result is a meeting with Brennan, the business leader and the CIO to revise priorities.
Forsythe is a company with 600 IT professionals, including six former CIO's, many of whom think they can do Rodgers job. This situation creates a special set of challenges for Brennan. Since information technology is a shared service at Forsythe every one of Brennan's direct reports has demands on Rodgers.

At Forsythe, there's no room for any gap between the CEO and the CIO, and both of them work at ensuring that IT and the business are on the same track.

He expects Rodgers to take full responsibility for the IT department at Forsythe, and be aware, but not responsible for, everything the company is doing with technology.

“Rodgers has to be in the room and up on trends. He has to be a moderating voice, tame the hype, stay up on what is real, how hard is it, and can I get it done?”

“He knows the business priorities for the year and I know exactly what the IT priorities are for the year, and if they are not lined up, they get lined up pretty quickly. By the CIO's understanding the business priorities from the CEO's perspective, he can focus more on essential items. The CEO needs to keep the CIO focused on what is driving business value Brennan said.“

In a dynamic organization, no set of priorities can persist for a year without modifications, so Brennan and Rodgers communicate frequently. They have a meeting scheduled each week and actually make that happen three weeks out of four, and they talk in between. The most common complaint that CEOs have about CIOs, said Brennan, is that they don't understand the business. Constant communication with the CIO aims to ensure that doesn't occur at Forsythe.

“Businesses that get information technology strategies and implementations right can pull away from their rivals while investments in the wrong systems or a failure to invest at all can saddle a firm with high costs and the inability to adapt to changing market conditions.“

While technology has always been a field of rapid change, the current pace is unprecedented. Virtualization and cloud computing have changed the nature of, and even the need for, data centers. Mobile devices are changing the nature of organizations and their definitions of work. Adoption of new technology, is occurring significantly faster among consumers than within corporations, and IT which used to be so good at saying “No” now has to adapt.

“The business and organizational implications that Apple's IPad sold14.8 million sold in the first year are a real game changer for CIO's Brennan said.”

It proves an excellent illustration of the challenges a CIO faces.

The Monday after the iPad shipped, Rodgers reported finding 12 IPads linked to the company's IT network, including two owned by inside board members. When Rodgers wanted to shut them down, Brennan suggested he go buy six -- use one for himself, hand five to his IT staff and figure out how to make them safe. Within days they had a solution.

“It turned out not to be so daunting,” recalled Brennan. “The sooner you jump on these things, the better.” Brennan stated that Forsythe is the third largest security provider in the U.S., representing about 150 security vendors, and finding solutions for innovations like the iPad is what Forsythe's clients expect. If the CIO had tried to shut down the iPads he would have been overwhelmed within a month and it would have trashed his brand inside the company, Brennan said.

“Rodgers realized I would sponsor him through the noise Brennan said.”

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