The Non-Hypothetical CIO

The Non-Hypothetical CIO

You are the “CIO” of your organization, and the expectations and pressure couldn’t be higher.

Your goal is to be an extraordinary leader with a transformative impact on your company and for your customers. The good news is there’s no shortage of guidance available regarding how to do so. But as you begin absorbing the contents of the many books, articles, conferences, blogs, tweets, videos and other posts on the topic, not to mention the daily tugs on your time from myriad stakeholders, you may begin to ask yourself: “Exactly what is my role anyway? Is the CIO the…

  • Chief innovation officer?
  • Chief architect?
  • Business transformation director?
  • Chief data/digital officer/evangelist?
  • Chief information security officer?
  • IT operations director?
  • Cloud enabler/broker?
  • Chief process improvement officer?
  • Senior IT customer relationship manager?
  • Chief outsourcing overseer?
  • Chief mobility officer and BYOD enabler?
  • Chief ITIL officer?
  • Chief technology officer?
  • Person who changes the parking lot security cameras?
  • (Insert your own role title as appropriate…)

In some ways the answer to the question is “yes” or “all of the above.” But you should understand the nuance behind these different roles and how they might apply within your own situation. Certainly, no single individual can fully embody all of these roles at the same time, no matter how talented. And no company or IT organization actually requires all of these roles in equal amounts from their CIO.

Most articles written by CIOs or CIO advisors are aspirational by their very nature, so don’t worry if none of them are a direct fit with your own professional situation. For example, you may report to the CFO and actually enjoy it, despite how many articles suggest you should feel about your circumstance. What if your company doesn’t have a Chief Marketing Officer for you to partner with? Maybe you work in a governmental agency, a nonprofit or other non-traditional organization where your role doesn’t really fit the “modern large-company CIO prototype.” And perhaps you and your IT teams have a terrific partnership with “Shadow IT.”

A smart leader will understand and glean something of use from each different perspective on the CIO role, but will also dispense with the notion that a one-size-fits-all CIO exists. How do I know, you ask? Because over the years, I’ve met hundreds of successful CIO’s who were very different from one another in their professional approach.

The tensions discussed by Martha Heller in her excellent book, The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership, are quite real, and the CIO role is ultimately as varied as the organizations that employ them and the individuals who take on the responsibility.

Your goal should be to ensure that your CIO role description connects the dots between what your company requires for success, the unique person that you are, and the resources available to you.

So begin by exploring these important questions:

  • Business: Do you thoroughly understand your company and its strategy? Can you clearly explain how your company will succeed in its marketplace/domain? Do you understand your external and internal stakeholders deeply? Do you grasp how your company’s business processes align with what they care about?

    If not, then attending another vendor-sponsored CIO conference is probably not your most important professional development opportunity this year. Instead, use that time to become an expert on what your company requires to be successful, building both your knowledge and your relationships along the way.

  • Personal: What kind of person are you? How do you like to work? What are the most motivating and energizing aspects of your week? Where can you apply your skills and gifts, where the passion just wells out of you? What is your personal brand, the imprint you wish to leave as you lead?

    If you design your leadership role as best fits the authentic “you,” you are more likely to play to your strengths and intelligently augment your weaknesses to create success for your organization. If you don’t know yourself well, or have never given thought to your personal brand, executive coaching can be a tremendous help.

  • Resources: Do you know your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? Be objective. Consider the people (employees and vendors), processes and technologies. Get a well-rounded view from multiple stakeholders, and think broader than your own immediate team. Use this crucial information to shape your role so that you can best serve your team as they serve your company. Design your own responsibilities to help your team members play to their strengths and improve their capabilities in weaker areas for better overall outcomes.

    I always walk away from this SWOT exercise with a greater appreciation for the many talented employees, smart vendors, impressive technologies and solid process improvement progress that was been made since the last time I considered this question. If you don’t know where to begin, there are many good assessment frameworks that define IT “maturity” to help you with your review. But just as articles on the definition of the modern CIO are only an input to you as you build out your professional approach, IT assessment frameworks are only a guide, not the “final answer” on the definition of a mature IT organization for your company.

Armed with these perspectives, you can now build out your CIO role description, targeting the intersection of the specific needs of your company, the unique person you are, and the resources available to you. Then create your action plan and become this leader!

Keep striving for excellence, learning and growing. Attend events of all types, read blogs and books, network with your peers, connect with mentors and coaches, and learn from everyone you can. But don’t believe the hype: you are the CIO that your company needs!

A Pacific Northwest native, Chris Van Liew holds the position of Chief Information Officer at Weyerhaeuser Company, responsible for developing strategies to improve competitive advantage through IT.  As a 22-year veteran of Weyerhaeuser, Chris has performed a broad set of roles across the IT function, managing a wide variety of projects and operational teams, in addition to performing various non-IT roles during that time.. This blog post was originally published on Your CIO Career.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.