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Why IT pros may be their own worst enemy in getting a chair on the executive table

Published on: 2014-09-07

This is the fifth in a series of eight posts that examines the relationship between business and IT. Based on an article examining manufacturing by Steven Wheelright and Robert Hayes, I have talked about four different levels (or stages) at which IT can interact with the rest of the business:

  • Stage 1: Internally Neutral (Minimize IT's Negative Potential)
  • Stage 2: Externally Neutral (Parity with Competitors or IT as a Service Provider)
  • Stage 3: Internally Supportive (Provides Credible Support to the Business Strategy)
  • Stage 4: Externally Supportive (Provides an Important Contribution to the Competitive Success of the Organization)

In this month's continuation of this series, I'll use the issue of whether the CIO gets a seat at the executive table as a proxy to discuss whether the CIO is respected within the organization, and how IT professionals can unwittingly sabotage their own chances of getting this respect.

You'd think that the CIO already has a seat at the executive table. In many companies, this is not the case. According to the Financial Times, only half of CIOs sit on the operational board of their company, and less than a third report to the CEO. So just because the CIO has an executive-level title, they clearly are often viewed as less important than, say, the CFO or COO. In the age of such pervasive technology that is vital to both smooth day-to-day operations and game-changing innovation, companies that don't have a CIO at the executive table are putting themselves at risk of their competitors passing them by. Technology professionals blame business people for this, but how much of this is the fault of technology pros themselves?

In order to answer this, we must first look in more detail at different attitudes prevalent within IT and how they would mesh with the stages I mentioned above. Here are the attitudes of IT professionals I've encountered in my career:

Combative - These IT professionals generally believe that the business people they work with are incompetent and should therefore be worked around rather than worked with. A combative CIO is sometimes a master at technology, but cannot understand (and doesn't wish to understand) why others aren't as knowledgeable. Such a CIO would want a seat at the executive table merely because he/she doesn't trust the people on the executive committee to make the correct decisions.

Compliant - These IT professionals generally believe that the business people own IT, and they view themselves merely as service providers to the business leaders. A compliant CIO is usually up-to-speed with technology, but often lets business drive innovation and only takes leadership around cutting costs. Despite being a follower rather than a leader, such a CIO would see himself/herself as a peer to the other C-level executives, and therefore believe that he/she deserves a seat at the executive table.

Collaborative - These IT professionals realize that technology is used most effectively when business leaders and IT professionals work together to create solutions. A truly collaborative CIO would be up-to-speed on both technology and business issues, and would constantly bounce around ideas with his/her business peers. A collaborative CIO would want at seat at the executive table in order to help shape and direct business strategy to make the most of available and emerging technologies.

It should be pretty clear to anyone who isn't himself/herself a combative CIO that a combative CIO doesn't belong at the executive table. He/she simply does not have the ability to build the personal relationships necessary to build trust. In fact, a combative CIO is likely to alienate his/her peers to the point where he/she would create a Stage 1 environment within the company and be viewed as a cost of doing business.

Most compliant CIOs probably believe that they belong on the executive committee due to the fact that other C-level employees within the company are. But it's tough to take someone seriously as a leader when his/her goals are limited to cutting costs and implementing the visions of the other leaders. Such a CIO would push his/her organization to adopt a Stage 2 environment - respected as a vital part of the business but still viewed as a cost center rather than as a source for innovation.

Most collaborative CIOs believe that they belong on the executive committee because they do. These are the leaders that have the vision to utilize technology to best achieve business objectives. Their vision would be such that they would push their organization into a Stage 4 environment. He/she would be well-positioned to ensure that the technology that the company is using is well-suited to achieve the company strategy and vice versa.

Finally, it is important to note that even the best CIO can only do so much to change the culture of an organization. A collaborative CIO in a Stage 1 organization probably won't get anywhere quickly - the business is already predisposed to seeing any mistakes, real or perceived, as proof that the CIO can't be trusted. It is unlikely that a qualified, collaborative CIO would stay long in such an environment. Likewise, a combative CIO could very likely ruin the trust present in a Stage 4 environment. So even though technology is so pervasive in today's business world, it takes the right CIO and the right environment to get a CIO on the executive committee.

Other posts in this series:

May: Levels of function (and dysfunction) IT can have with business
June: Why Stages 1 and 3 are not viable long-term stages
July: What a Stage 2 organization might look like
August: What a Stage 4 organization might look like
September: How IT professionals can be their own worst enemy in achieving Stage 4
October: How your Stage would affect your management practices
November: How your Stage would affect your hiring practices
December: How can an organization reach Stage 4?

This article was originally posted here and may have been edited for clarity.