CIO? No, Leader Wanted


Change.  That is the overriding theme of today.  So that got me thinking about the relationship between IT and Business, the classic IT and Business Alignment problem, and how “everyone” is always promoting that it must change.  After all, it’s been an issue for like, well, forever.


CEOs are always saying they need their IT organizations to understand the business to be aligned, synchronized, converged, or whatever.  They want the CIO to understand the ‘business’.  If this is the case, when looking for a CIO, why do organizations tend to look only at those who have worked exclusively, or primarily in technology?  Sure, the person has to have some level of understanding about technology, but does the CIO really need to know every detail of C#, Visual Basic, or Java?


I recently had a conversation with ‘Jack’, a CFO of a Fortune 1000 organization who was sharing a conversation he had with a friend of his, ‘Mark’ – a Fortune 500 CEO.  Mark was having issues getting value and alignment out of his IT organization and was considering outsourcing the group.  Jack told him, “Before you do that, you need to make sure you have the right leader in that position – someone who understands the big picture.”


Every organization is different – just ask them.  Maybe it’s time to do something different.  Remember the classic definition of insanity: Keep doing the same thing but expect a different result.  Seems to me that if you truly want to change the way IT functions in the organization, looking outside the technology sandbox for a leader might not be a bad idea.


Let me know your thoughts!


Glenn Whitfield 

8 Responses to CIO? No, Leader Wanted

  1. Elliot Ross says:

    Glenn- In my opinion the IT leader does NOT “need to know every detail of C#, Visual Basic, or Java”

    The leader DOES need to know the relevant level of detail in technology.

    His staff can worry about C# et al

    I do believe that the IT leader must know enough about technology to communicate costs / benefits / risks of tech initiatives.

    Would you tolerate your CFO stating “I don’t know what this NPV number means but my people tell me….”

    Umm No

    The IT leaders people may be the experts at SOA and enterprise service buses – but that leader needs to know that relevant level of detail to be able to communicate the concept and how it affects the business.

    Would you trust an IT leader in the boardroom who says “I don’t know what this SOA stuff is, but my people says it will save money …”

    Umm I don’t think so!

  2. Andrew Meyer says:


    I agree with you, though I hate the word leader. (Lenin, Mao, Hitler and on a positive note, Morgan, Rockefeller, Rothschild etc. were leaders.) Someone who starts a business in a new field, think Bill Gates, is a leader. A CIO is a manager. They are given a budget, participate in discussions about vision and corporate direction, and execute a plan that is aligned with those goals.

    Alignment is a management issue. Is everybody going in the same direction? Leaders, by definition, do not go in the same direction as others.

    My point isn’t to get into an argument about semantics, but one of direction. Company ‘leaders’ need a little management. When there are good times and everyone is flush with cash, it is easier to let people go in their own direction and not worry about the trade offs. We have had almost 25 years where that has been true and discussions were about possibilities that could recover any cost. That time is gone.

    Now, discussions will be about trade offs. How much is something going to cost, where is the money going to come from and what has to be cut to pay for the project we go forward with. Many projects (over 60%) need to be cut. Considerations will revolve around what are the core initiatives that will move the business forward as a successful, ongoing enterprise. Those are the ones that will be funded. That will drive alignment.

    Cutting 60% of the projects means people will not be spread so thin and the projects will actually succeed. Successful people will be judged on their ability to make projects succeed, not the possibilities they promise. Also, it means that many of the people with their own agendas will be corralled. Finances will dictate that there will be much more alignment than there is today.

    Understanding what’s of core importance to the business and how to deliver it efficiently and effectively will be the calling card of the successful CIO. With all due respect to Elliot Ross, there should be no discussion of SOA or C# in the boardroom. Those discussions should get CIOs get thrown out. The board better be talking about corporate direction, benefits and cost metrics for how things will be judged. The CIO better start participating in those conversations, or they will be relegated to a non-executive position reporting to the CFO. The successful executive CIO will talk far more about ROI and NPV than SOA.

    ROI and how project will be paid for and pay for itself are what need to be discussed. That is what leads to alignment. While a CIO might need to know something about SOA if it’s relevant to his business, the boardroom is not the place to talk about it.

  3. Elliot Ross says:

    Well Argued! Some I agree with 100% – some I would like to consider further.

    A inference that I enjoyed with your original post – is that I personally believe the CIO must **get away from being a manager** – and more into true leadership (in the non-political connotation) – i.e. paint the do-you-see -what-I-see picture that inspires & moves people to follow.

    The ‘manager’ should be the next people in line.

    And I agree that the discussion needs to be about trade offs – and that was the context of my response – And I would argue that the financial chief can debate the trade off of various instruments, the manufacturing chief can debate the trade offs of a new facility vs. expansion etc.

    I simply believe that the tech chief needs to possess the relevant level of tech detail to debate the same trade offs.

    I also agree – there should not be discussion of C# in the boardroom!

    But I would posit that in a discussion of reducing IT operational spending, if the CIO’s managers have identified that extensively re-architecting the IT function to improve code re-use, and improve cycle times (i.e through an architecture such as SOA) I would want to believe that enough knowledge and background can be discussed to vigorously debate the pro’s and con’s as well as the metrics behind each option.

    Thank you so much for response!


  4. […] must be on a manager vs. leader kick.  I just noted a couple of posts by Glenn Whitfield (here) and Andrew Meyer (here) that touch on an interesting dimension of the topic: IT strategy and […]

  5. Andrew & Elliot –

    Thanks for the comments! There has been and I am sure will continue to be much debate over the manager / leader difference. I just think it would be wise for an organization to look beyond the technology silo if they want to achieve better alignment/convergence/synchronization – whatevery you want to call it. Yes the person should have a good understanding of technology, but if they can’t put it in terms the CEO/CFO/COO can understand, it won’t matter.


  6. cioassistant says:

    I am a latecomer to this thread, but just by coincidence I have written a recent post on the essentional roles of the CIO ( which argues that a CIO must be at the same time a manager, a leader and a business person. I don’t see too many CIOs being successful with only 2, let alone one: the Leader role. There is a time and a place for each role (e.g. business person in the boardroom) yet the reach of the CIO is too large and varied to play the same role over and over.

  7. You’re right that CIOs (as well as most CxOs) need to play multiple roles in order to be successful, which is precisely why organizations should look beyond just the technology sandbox when searching for thier next CIO. Historically, many CIOs have received the C-title just because they were the highest ranking tech person, and it had nothing to do with their ability to lead, manage, or think like a business person. Thankfully, this is starting to change in some organizations.

    Thanks for the comments!

  8. […] gap discussed earlier (here) is drawn in this back-and-forth among Glenn Whitfield (here), Andrew Meyer (here), and others.  All good stuff, though the last two comments on Glenn’s […]

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