Strategy Clinic: My CIO job sidelined after merger - what should I do?

I'm the UK CIO of a multinational company whose headquarters has been in the US since the company was taken over several years ago. I feel that my role has been steadily gutted of substance since the 'merger' took place. Essentially I don't feel trusted by my American boss. Although I don't disagree with the IT strategy driven by the US, I do feel that I might as well not be here. What should I do?

I'm the UK CIO of a multinational company whose headquarters has been in the US since the company was taken over several years ago. I feel that my role has been steadily gutted of substance since the 'merger' took place. Essentially I don't feel trusted by my American boss. Although I don't disagree with the IT strategy driven by the US, I do feel that I might as well not be here. What should I do?

Understand what is expected of you

What you are feeling sounds like it is due to a combination of the shifts that are taking place in the role of the CIO, and cultural differences between nations - in this case, the UK and the US.

As a business unit CIO within a multi-national corporation, your role is becoming less and less about technology, per se. As companies have implemented shared services models for IT, coupled with outsourcing where appropriate, the technology that your business unit uses is now designed, developed and managed "somewhere else". Business unit CIOs may have some say in the technology architecture and who provides it, but that is not really the substance of their role.

Instead, your role is more about how your business creates maximum value by investing in changes that exploit IT. This needs a solid appreciation of the local environment in which your business operates, including national culture, and of the genuine opportunities for the company to innovate using IT. It means providing leadership to your executive colleagues in choosing the best combination of changes to invest in, in executing those changes and then exploiting them to create most value. You also need to provide leadership in keeping the costs of IT to your business's Profit and Loss (P&L) within whatever boundaries you and your executive colleagues have agreed. All this may sometimes put your business unit at odds with "corporate IT".

There is a natural, and usually healthy, tension between the strategies of business units and that of the corporation of a whole. As a business unit CIO, your role is to be immersed in the strategy and culture of the UK business, providing executive-level leadership in the shaping and exploitation of business changes that involve IT, and in proactively managing the resulting costs to P&L. And if you have succeeded in that, then delete "that involve IT" from the previous sentence. Then you will have truly reached the fruition of the CIO role.

Chris Potts is a corporate IT strategist and CIO futurist

Change your job

There is only one realistic answer - find another job. If your role has been steadily eroded for some years, however unfair and inaccurate, your US bosses don't rate your opinions or input at all. Supporting their IT strategy doesn't count for anything it can simply taste of sycophancy. You are not the chief of anything, more like the operations manager carrying out directed functions as efficiently and effectively as you are able. There is nothing at all wrong with being an operations manager, except that you are called chief information officer.

It is a very unhappy situation to be sidelined like this: Reassert your pride and confidence, rework your CV as well as you can and move on - they don't want you.

Robin Laidlaw, president, CW500 Club

Emphasise your local strengths

You seem to have two challenges here. The first is the legacy of the 'merger' (or does it feel more like a takeover, with changes to strategy and systems imposed on you rather than agreed with you?). Secondly, you're suffering from what feels like an imbalance in the US-UK corporate relationship - not uncommon in the early years of a major merger, according to Corporate IT Forum subscribers.

There's no getting away from it, different countries can have very different corporate cultures and communications approaches which can only be blended over time - evolving through individuals rather than projects.

However, you appear to approve of the US-driven IT strategy so now you must bring your UK/EU-developed skills and knowledge to the combined company table. Is your strength in local market knowledge and negotiation? Does your experience lie in offshore relationship building and management or an in-depth understanding of regional service providers and regulatory parameters?

You have a prime opportunity to guide your American bosses through the transition from an inward-looking, US focus to a new, outward-looking global perspective. Have confidence in your skills and exercise your value - that's what you're there for!

Ollie Ross, head of research, The Corporate IT Forum

Focus on UK business change

I find this a particularly interesting question, given my experiences as a national and European CIO in three different multinationals. These have been supplemented by my research into global IT groups. One key conclusion is that CIOs need to recognise how power is distributed in organisations.

Your situation is not helped by the fact you were not selected by your American boss, although it is positive that you are still there after several years. The questions you raise relate to what your role should be and how you can build mutual trust with your boss.

In a multinational group, you need to analyse the style and culture of the organisation and act accordingly. Depending on the business structure, you may find corporate IT focuses on the definition of IT policies and standards. For example, there may be a drive to negotiate central hardware agreements and to put in a common enterprise resource planning system.

If this is the case, you as the UK CIO will have the key job of aligning business and IT strategy in the UK. Of course you will need to follow and help shape the corporate IT policies but your major task will be to enable business change in the UK. Doing this effectively may offer broader opportunities, such as taking on a European CIO role or becoming a COO.

A much more constrained national role is likely in a single product company where both business and IT strategy is driven by the US. In these circumstances, it may be advisable to seek a global role looking after policy, applications or infrastructure.

All this assumes you want to stay and influence the organisation's strategy rather than just accept an operational role. It also depends on your ability to create a new sense of trust with your boss. I would advise you to talk to others in similar situations while ensuring that you carefully analyse your own position.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Business School

Develop a new role

Merger transactions often lead to these types of struggles, resulting in the centralisation of IT strategy ownership. However, as the UK CIO, you have options worth exploring. If you have already considered leaving your company yet have decided to stay on, evaluate these options:

  1. Raise your commercial profile: Develop strong relationships with the UK business leaders. Aim to understand their strategy and develop options for improving the alignment of IT strategies, preferably through tangible initiatives focused on specific business goals. Keep the global CIO informed of your progress and successes, and you may find he begins to delegate more demand-side management responsibilities to you.
  2. Find a new role in the business: You probably already have a deep understanding of your company's business operations. However, as a result of investing in raising your commercial profile, you may discover or even create an opportunity to move your career into a new domain in the business, and possibly an opportunity for one of your existing team to run IT. It would be wise to continue to keep the global CIO informed of your intentions in this regard, as you will need their support for your continued success.
  3. Create a new role in global IT: As a UK-based CIO, you may well already have international management experience. Work with the global CIO to develop a position involving less responsibility for the development of the global IT strategy but more for its projection and implementation. The global CIO may well value the opportunity to offload that responsibility to someone with a global outlook that his US-based staff may lack.

Hopefully, some of these options suit your circumstance - broadening your skills and knowledge will most likely open up some new options as well.

Giles Watkins, a transactions partner in technology & security risk services at Ernst & Young

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This was last published in January 2009

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