So you want to be a CEO? Don't forget your day job



Mark Lewis

Opinion

How many IT directors does it take to change a light bulb? Five - one to change the bulb and four more to...



Mark Lewis

Opinion

How many IT directors does it take to change a light bulb? Five - one to change the bulb and four more to discuss whether they should really be called IT directors at all, and not chief information officers (CIOs), chief technology officers (CTOs), vice presidents (VPs) for technology.

It's a lame gag, but it's one that highlights a frustrating trend within the UK's IT directorate.

At last week's "Today's CIO is Tomorrow's CEO" seminar hosted by co-sourcer Allied Worldwide in Cannes, there was rather more navel gazing than strategising in evidence.

In session after session delegates picked over the semantics of the business world's small print.

Pondering differences

One moment they were pondering the difference between an IT director and chief information officer ("about twenty grand", hazarded one wag); the next they were mulling over the issue of "IT strategy versus business strategy" - as if one isn't quite plainly a subset of the other. From there, they went on to consider the prospects of IT directors rising to become CEO.

What is it that makes IT chiefs so prone to self-analysis?

No other sphere within the corporate firmament spends so much of its time contemplating its personality and its aspirations. And no other department is nearly as paranoid about what the rest of the business thinks of it.

You don't often, for example, receive customer satisfaction surveys from the human resources or the finance departments asking you to grade their effectiveness.

Maybe, as one delegate suggested, the answer lies in the fact that "in business terms, we're the new kid on the block", still looking to carve out an identity.

Whatever the reason, the ITdepartment must make some fundamental changes if it is to be taken seriously. If the IT department is to graduate from support function to profit generator, it needs to realise that its tendency to wallow in self-doubt over its reputation for failing to deliver benefit, could easily become a self-fulfiling prophecy.

The department must focus on the real customers - those whom the business supports - rather than its own internal customers around the organisation.

The challenge that faces today's IT directors is simple: to provide the business with focus, direction and leadership in the area they understand best. And in this, they are no different to any other director in the enterprise.

First and foremost, this means ITdirectors must beware of neglecting their day job. Only by getting the governance of the organisation's infrastructure right, can IT directors cast themselves as contributing business partners.

The old saying, that you're only as good as your last system, or your last mistake, could have been coined with the IT department in mind. You can talk about communicating, storytelling and engaging with the business until you are blue in the face, but you ignore the core functions of your department, at your peril.

To be fair, there was some irritation among delegates in Cannes that all the talk seemed to be about corporate power broking and politics, and none was devoted to the infrastructural side of their role. "Our role is to implement the ideas," asserted one delegate.

"I'm a plumber!" proclaimed another, in a moment of catharsis straight out of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One could sense his frustration that there should be any shame in the admission.

Up the corporate ladder

In coming years, some of the IT directors present at Cannes will inevitably prove better able - or more eager - than others to haul themselves up the corporate ladder.

Some will flourish by forging intimacy between themselves and the board, and may indeed emerge as CEOs. Others will fall back on their technical skills, and continue to do what they do well. And where's the crime in that?

Why must every IT director in the land be collectively responsible for the evolution of their species? IT directors need to get onto the board on their own merit, and through choice. It shouldn't be a question of getting the IT function per se onto the board.

"I'm not motivated to be a CEO, therefore I won't be," said our frustrated plumber. "I like playing with toys - I'll go for technology any day".

"Your unique selling point is you as an individual," said one of the event speakers, and he's dead right. One man might want to be a contender, another might be happy as a contributor.

Let those IT directors with aspirations to become CEOs assert themselves as they see it. For the rest, it's a matter of striving to be -and be perceived as - a deliverer of business benefit through means of technology.

"No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was Imeant to be", exclaims J Alfred Prufrock, in the TS Eliot poem.

A similar dose of self-knowledge in IT director community might allow it focus more clearly on the job in hand.

Mark Lewis

Read more on IT legislation and regulation

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