The CEO is serious about IT, so you need to get serious about business

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The CEO is serious about IT, so you need to get serious about business

The issue: Business skills needed as IT leader moves up the corporate ladder

The question: A management restructure means that I now report direct to our chief executive. This is not a change I sought as I still feel more comfortable as a provider of technical services. I feel exposed but also wish to make the most of my new position in the hierarchy. Should I ask the CEO for mentoring in the ways of business, or just bluff it out until I feel more at ease?

Use the chance to get over to the business what IT can do for it

To find yourself in this situation suggests that the CEO feels that IT is sufficiently important to warrant their personal attention.

Although this can seem a bit alarming to a technically oriented IT director, it is a great opportunity to get a better understanding of how the organisation works and what the business drivers are. It should help you to get over the message of what IT can do for the business, and ultimately the new structure should help ensure that IT is better matched to business requirements.

To get started, I would explain to the CEO that previously you have had a technical role, but that you are enthusiastic about moving to a more strategic position. As this is something new, you will need some help and mentoring.

I would not recommend bluffing it out as most CEOs are finely attuned to detecting flannel.

This may feel a bit uncomfortable to start with, and this type of position is not for everyone. Hopefully, though, you will grow into the job and it will give you much sought after business skills to complement your technical and managerial knowledge.

Ben Booth, BCS Elite

Ben Booth is chairman of BCS Elite, a forum for IT directors and senior managers to discuss how to manage IT to achieve business objectives.

Strike your own reciprocal mentoring deal with another CIO

I would not recommend either of the options you suggest.

You need to take a proactive stance and arrange meetings with your peers and colleagues within the business. Ask them about their departments and what they are looking for from technical services. Listen, learn and ask questions while at the same time building relationships and allies.

Do not make any major decisions for at least two months until you have improved your knowledge and understanding of the business. You are currently in your honeymoon period - make the most of it.

Get a mentor but do not expect your CEO to provide one for you. Find a fellow IT director/CIO in another organisation and arrange a reciprocal mentoring arrangement. It can be lonely at the top, so your offer is likely to be appreciated.

And remember: at your level it is better to ask for forgiveness than to seek permission.

Robina Chatham, Cranfield School of Management

Robina Chatham is a visiting fellow in information systems at Cranfield School of Management, which has strong links to industry and business.

The fact that you feel exposed can be turned into a positive

Your CEO will have approved the restructure (and indeed may have been the architect) and so will be supportive of this change. You are comfortable with the provision of technical services, but your new reporting line makes you more accountable to the business for those services.

This means that you need to communicate with your CEO in a suitable language, translating technical issues to business needs and issues, and identifying how IT can provide solutions to current and future business needs.

Book some time with your CEO and ask what the expectations are from you in terms of reporting and style. Use this opportunity to ask for help if needed, but you should also show initiative and express your own thoughts on how the relationship is going to work.

The fact that you feel exposed means you are taking the role seriously. By demonstrating that you are keen to learn and develop, you have a great opportunity ahead of you.

Roger Rawlinson, NCC Group

Roger Ralwinson is director IT consultancy at NCC Group, an independent provider of IT security, assurance and consultancy services.

Without business and interpersonal skills, you will not survive

You are right to feel somewhat exposed, although you have taken a big step forward in recognising that you will need more expertise if you wish to take advantage of reporting to the chief executive.

The size of the challenge is illustrated by research we have done at Henley Management College on the skills of IT managers compared with those of CIOs. An IT manager is primarily a supplier of IT and needs a mix of technical, professional and management skills. By contrast, the CIO is also focused on exploiting IT and needs to display strong business and interpersonal skills in addition to having enough of the other skills within their top IT team.

So can you bluff it out? A more pertinent question might be how long can you survive if you do not have the skills required of a CIO?

Much depends on the capabilities and expectations of the CEO. If the CEO or another board member can perform the role of a CIO, you may be able to form an effective partnership.

However, you should sit down and have a frank discussion with the CEO about the future. Based on this discussion you may need support in a number of areas covering business, political and governance themes.

This assistance may come from a combination of internal and external development activities. An experienced mentor should be able to guide you through this critical phase.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College

Sharm Manwani is head of information management at Henley Management College. He has also held IT director roles at two multinationals.

You should welcome this opportunity to increase your CEO's understanding of, and involvement in, IT.

As IT becomes an ever more critical component of business infrastructure it is only natural that it will come under the spotlight. In most industries IT is now a significant enabler of business strategy and IT investment decisions can be some of the most critical business decisions. This sounds like a great opportunity for you.

Do not try to bluff it out. The fact that a chief executive wants you to report directly could indicate two valuable things: that they regard IT as important to the business and that they are prepared to invest their time to ensure success in this area.

Ask the CEO for their help. Make it clear what you feel comfortable doing and what you need help with from a business perspective. Key things you must engage with together to establish common understanding are likely to be: understanding the priorities of the CEO and the business; what "view" of IT and IT investment the CEO is looking for from you; and the CEO's opinions on how IT adds value to the business.

Most importantly, this is an ideal opportunity for you to learn from each other and bridge the gap often seen between IT and the business.

Andrew Whiter, Ernst & Young

Andrew Whiter is senior manager in IT governance at international professional services company Ernst & Young.

You need a mentor - but make sure it is someone independent

Don't be tempted to bluff it out as your CEO will see through that very quickly. Rather than ask the CEO for mentoring, sort out in your own mind what specific aspects of business you want mentoring in and track down the person in each case you consider best placed to help.

You may want to mention to the CEO that you are doing this, but having the person to whom you are accountable also being your mentor is likely to result in a major conflict of interests.

If you have not had mentoring before, here is what to look for in each person you choose, in no particular order: knowledge and experience of the subject; trust; candidness; a willingness to challenge you, with rationale; commitment to your personal agenda; no conflicts of interest; experience in mentoring. They do not need to have been in your role - it is much more important to have a track record of helping others like you.

Scanning this list, I hope you will see why your CEO and executive colleagues should not be your mentors. By all means turn to them for input and guidance on their specific subject area - something a good mentor will probably encourage you to do anyway - but recognise this is not same as mentoring.

Chris Potts, Dominic Barrow

Chris Potts is director of Dominic Barrow, which specialises in helping businesses focus IT management on maximising business value.

Talk to your CEO - they may be wondering about your silence

Many IT directors are obsessed with getting a reporting line direct to the CEO. It is the most powerful position the IT director can get without actually being on the board. It puts them almost on a par with the functional directors, although this in itself can pose some hazards.

It is quite certain that the re-structuring did not dump you into a "doesn't fit anywhere so let's make him report to the CEO bin".

CEOs really don't want that sort of encumbrance. The reality is that the CEO appreciates just how important IT is to the success of the business and wants direct control of it.

Also, it is reasonable to assume that your CEO does not blithely believe that suddenly you will be imbued with lots of knowledge of business in general and your company's business in particular.

Do not try to bluff it out - you will be eaten alive.

Yes, you do need mentoring. I have to declare that one of my business activities is mentoring, so it is fairly safe to assume I would say that. But I undertake mentoring because it is useful and sometimes vital for the success or survival of the person being mentored. They have to want it, not have it thrust upon them: you sound receptive.

Your mentoring should not just embrace "the ways of business" you mention, but also provide you with an environment in which you can discuss issues, frustrations, peer relationship problems, and so on, outside the normal reporting and relationship structure.

Proper mentoring does not have a feedback by the mentor to the boss. Any feedback is up to the person being mentored, so all your concerns, issues and so on stay confidential.

I am sure your CEO is aware of the need for you to get some assistance and will be familiar with the training and experience you have received so far. It may well be in the CEO's mind to act in some ways as your mentor personally, but they will not be able to assist in the offline discussions I described earlier. External mentoring is likely to be most beneficial to you.

Do talk to your CEO, who may well be sitting there, wondering why you aren't.

Robin Laidlaw, Computer Weekly 500 Club

Robin Laidlaw is president of the Computer Weekly 500 Club, a networking forum for CIOs, and was formerly IT director at British Gas.

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This was first published in July 2006

 

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