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Gamekeeper to poacher: should a CIO cross the IT divide?

As IT leaders switch jobs more often after completing major change programmes, should they consider moving to work for suppliers?

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Many CIOs – particularly those who have completed major change cycles – who have stepped down from long-term positions are increasingly looking for “portfolio” roles rather than securing another corporate CIO appointment.

In practice, this could be a consultancy-like job at a software supplier or integrator, often a third-party provider to their former employer. 

While there are variables to consider around moving from the position of gamekeeper (CIO at user organisations) to poacher (supplier and consulting firms), it is important for executives to understand whether it is time to start looking, says Iain McKeand, CIO practice director at recruitment firm Harvey Nash. 

“I have many case studies of CIOs from all sectors having to take stock of their medium to long-term futures due to the fact that they have outsourced infrastructure services, software development or both functions, which were previously internal components,” says McKeand. 

“The upsides of outsourcing major components of technology departments include financial benefit and commercial advantages. However, CIOs may find that the new landscape does not really warrant the organisation employing a permanent, executive-level IT director. It is indeed a double-edged sword.”

One affirmation that is commonly heard across the industry is that when a CIO makes the transition to the supplier side, he or she becomes a major asset. That is because former user-side CIOs represent a commercial advantage as buyers, and “CIOs in residence” at suppliers tend to use the same language, which may be less sales-oriented. 

Former Thomson Reuters CIO Christine Ashton is an example of how such a move can succeed - not only for the supplier, but also for the professional. Since January, Ashton has been leading a new CXO practice within the S/4 Hana cloud team at SAP aimed at engaging with the c-suite in their digital journeys.  

“I have spent a career figuring out how to spend less resources on IT maintenance and more on business innovation, so I can totally empathise with what CIOs are going through,” says Ashton. 

Ashton says her role is that of a CXO “co-pilot” whose responsibility is to interact with clients to create shared visions of the future using SAP systems and to get companies ready for cloud adoption by co-developing strategies. 

“I also work on building end-to-end business value cases together that start to reduce technical debt, variabilise costs and allow IT to be agile and responsive in a world that is changing very quickly,” she says. 

Different light

Ashton says her work on the supplier side helped her see some ways of doing things that are perceived as normal from a user perspective under a completely different light, such as the procurement process. 

“I would ask CIOs to really consider how they buy: under what circumstances does it make sense to ask a supplier to complete a 400-page request for proposals?” she says. “If you are buying services, do you need to reconsider the questions?

“If I am swapping my electricity supplier, I don’t ask how the power stations work, but I might ask when was the last time there was a blackout. In a services world, I think we all need to learn how to question business outcomes rather than features.”

Another reflection that came as a result of Ashton’s move to the poacher side is that CIOs at user organisations tend to not ask for as much support as they should.

“When I was a CIO, I don’t think I really thought enough about just how much effort strategic partners put into thinking through what’s best for their customers,” she says. “ I don’t think CIOs ask for help enough. 

“As a CIO in residence, I am in a position to help both sides to have a more beneficial conversation”
Christine Ashton, SAP

“It’s a bit like when my friend got a cleaner a few years ago, she always used to clean up the day before she came – and rearrange the kitchen after she went. I once asked her: why did you do that, why don’t you talk to her? She might have some good ideas. Suppliers and end-users don’t have enough quality conversations.” 

A well-known CIO in the UK and internationally, Ashton has an extensive contact network that includes many colleagues from the user side, who have been “genuinely pleased” to see a senior technology executive acting as a bridge between them and a major strategic partner.    

“Sometimes suppliers can be guilty of focusing on the features of their products, with scant regard for the customer’s context or what information the customer needs to support a proposition to their board,” she says. “As a CIO in residence, I am in a position to help both sides to have a more beneficial conversation.”

But it can also be a challenge to strike the right balance when a CIO changes sides – especially if they are working for a supplier that might not be as pervasive or popular across the IT portfolios of user organisations. 

“I immediately stepped down from CIO peer groups because having a consultant in the room – even a trusted one – created a conflict and also a feeling that I was there to sell,” says an IT chief who asked not to be named.  

“Having said that, two of my networks have invited me back to present on a given topic, exactly because of the unusual perspective I can bring.”

Work those contacts 

Being able to develop contacts was crucial for Nick Folkes, currently a regional CIO for the UK and Ireland at security services outsourcer G4S. Back at the start of the 2000s, Folkes was a technical director at Cable & Wireless, then years later he was hired by Tesco, where he was responsible for IT across the supermarket chain’s retail, distribution, commercial and head office systems.  

“When I moved across the divide, I was able to use my contacts from the supply side,” says Folkes. “This gave me the confidence in how to transform those relationships into commercial partnerships beneficial to both parties.  

“Having been supply side, you intuitively know what makes a supplier tick, what they are looking for beyond the sale. You also know who adds value under different needs. The pre-sales engineer, the account executive, the P&L [profit and loss] owner, the product manager – they all want something slightly different from their relationship with you as a CIO.”

“Having been supply side, you intuitively know what makes a supplier tick”
Nick Folkes, G4S

According to Folkes, the motivation for changing sides from supplier to user came from having developed technology for clients for years, then wanting to be on the receiving end of the innovations created by suppliers.  

“I felt something was missing in terms of being part of the long-term ownership and being part of the business that benefited from the technology being created and operated,” he says. “This ultimately led to a goal I set myself of becoming a CIO and being part of an executive team driving a business forward through technology innovation.” he says.

Folkes adds that the skillset required from CIOs both in the supplier and user side is more similar than you might think. 

“While the ownership position is clearly different, you still have to influence your stakeholders to embrace your ideas and make them become an integral part of how they themselves become successful,” he says. “This is highly analogous to being on the supply side convincing a client to buy into your solution.” 

Role and reward

Other advantages cited by technology executives when moving to the supplier side of the equation are associated with the role of team leader, which shifts dramatically once a senior professional moves from a user to a supplier, according to a former FTSE 100 CIO, now turned technology strategy consultant, who also asked to remain anonymous.  

“I now no longer have a team of more than 150 people and a suite of outsource providers and their delivery teams to lead, develop and keep engaged,” he says.  “But that is a big part of the CIO’s role and reward, so leaving it behind can be hard to do.”

The CIO adds that developing talent at a supplier, as well as getting access to leading-edge technology, can be positively different. 

“The whole variety of clients, client work, technology and operating model capabilities that consulting staff are exposed to means that variety is guaranteed,” he says. “Learning opportunities abound as being on the leading edge of technology understanding – whether strategy or delivery – is what clients are paying for and few client organisations can afford to train and develop staff in more than the core tools, many of which are being commoditised anyway.  

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“Also, for younger consultants, the potential exposure they get to c-suite is far greater earlier in their careers than in a client organisation. So are consultancies just sending in untrained graduates?  Far from it – they are well trained, well supported, very capable and have learned from their entire peer group and their organisation’s history of delivery, which is not possible in a user organisation.

“In terms of new and emerging technologies, I thought I had a relatively broad outlook as a CIO. However, once exposed to the full breadth across all enterprise functions and all industries, you quickly realise the quite enormous IT marketplace that is not being tapped by most client organisations.” 

According to the CIO, other significant perks when moving to the supplier side include not having to actually run technology and be aware of potential incidents being escalated around the clock, particularly during key business event cycles. “And, of course, there is no CEO ringing me up when his iPhone doesn’t work,”  he adds.

Regardless of the side of the fence they sit beside, senior IT professionals who have seen both sides of the divide can be true business partners, according to the anonymous CIO. While they can ensure that suppliers have enough rewards to prevent short-changing within agreements, they can also get the very best for user organisations if they know how suppliers operate. 

“As a CIO in a consulting business, I find that I can create a rapport with a CIO far more quickly and am able to hear his actual challenges, where my colleagues may not. However, my consulting colleagues bring a wealth of methodologies and experience that few CIOs can ever hope for.”

This was last published in June 2017

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Does that mean that the days when a spell as CIO was on the path to CEO are long gone?
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