Why Do CIOs Get No Respect?

Technology Staff Editor
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For how many years have you been hearing that CIOs "need to get a seat at the table"? Why would CIO magazine's Web site -- ostensibly in business to enlighten CIOs -- make the irresponsible and preposterous claim that the only way each and every one of you became a CIO was through political scheming, back-stabbing, and "butt-kissing"? Why do we rarely see surveys on how many CFOs report to the CEO, while such research about CIOs is commonplace? Why is it news when a CIO is a member of the executive committee, instead of that being the norm? Why would a global executive-search firm say that "few IT executives have the business qualifications or capitalist's killer instinct for making money"? Why, here in the year 2009, would a director at a nationally known IT consulting firm feel the need to offer CIOs condescending advice that should have been obvious 20 years ago: "Don't talk 'new technology' with the CFO, talk the CFO's own language. That's how to communicate." Why would a national business publication portray CIOs in a breathtakingly degrading fashion as socially retarded dorks who have no idea what their business does or why it does it? How many times have you heard that insipid joke that CIO stands for 'career is over'? Why are many CIOs regarded as last among equals in the C-suite? Why, indeed, do CIOs get so little respect? For the substantive issues above, I think there are four primary reasons. For the lightweight ones -- the asinine spoutings of journalists who have no clue what they're talking about -- well, I don't really have any idea, but I'll share the evidence and let you decide. 1) Failure to engage with customers. Many CIOs have failed to stay ahead of the trend lines in their industries and even in their own companies and instead have been overly concerned with internal issues. If every other part of the organization but IT is connecting with customers -- of course sales and marketing, but also engineering, design, manufacturing, service, logistics, and even accounting, for goodness' sake -- then is it really a surprise that IT is also a step behind in its thinking, its approaches, its language, and most of all its results? There are two and only two categories here: leaders and followers. And for those CIOs and their IT teams who do not create ways to establish meaningful, business-driven, and quantifiable engagements with customers, the lack of respect you get today will never change. 2) CEOs' unwillingness to drive substantive change. Look at car companies, retailers, banks, airlines, music companies, movie studios, and media companies: All are facing brutal challenges, and most have been facing those very same challenges for at least 10 if not 20 or more years. Over that time, many CEOs in those industries have become celebrities for making big (and often unsuccessful) acquisitions or for embarking on global (and often unsuccessful) expansions, but most of all for ignoring the profound changes that technology has been unleashing on their industries and their customers, competitors, and business models. CIOs have been trapped in the middle: forced to perpetuate processes and systems that didn't address the rapidly changing world, and then at the 11th hour being told to shift into some hyperevolutionary gear to make their companies' Web sites appear to be cool and hip in hopes of catching the latest trendy wave. Perhaps the CIOs didn't object loudly enough, and deserve a good chunk of the blame, which is expressed as a lack of respect. But the real blame for the "pay no attention to the man behind the screen!" lies with the CEOs who chose to pretend that if they just went on talking long enough without doing anything, then everything would somehow come out OK in the end. 3) CIOs' failure to offer quantify business value. How many CIOs have C-level peers who can explain in clear and straightforward terms the business value that the CIO has delivered to them in the past 6, 12, and 24 months? How many CIOs have C-level executives who could defend not just vigorously but intelligently every capital expense in the CIO's 2-year strategic plan? How many CIOs have C-level peers who could go into a board of directors meeting and deliver a very cogent 15-minute summary of the company's business-technology strategy and the customer value it's creating now and will continue to create into the future? For the CIOs who don't have such peers, the fault is yours: it's your responsibility, not theirs, to create and share the metrics and analytical tools that prove the wisdom and value of your investments, your teams, your vision, your decisions, and your leadership. 4) Failure to attack the 80/20 ratio. For years, CEOs have been badgering and begging CIOs to find ways to unlock precious IT budget dollars from the dungeon of inflexible and expensive legacy systems and maintenance to allow those funds to be used for innovative, market-focused projects. And for years, too many CIOs have shrugged their shoulders and expressed the 80/20 ratio as a law of physics that is as immutable as the speed of light. But today, new management approaches and analytical tools and infrastructure technologies do exist to radically alter that ratio, and CIOs who have resisted it for years have lost enormous credibility because their companies have been leapfrogged by nimbler and more-opportunistic competitors. CIOs who don't attack and solve the 80/20 puzzle are doomed to fail, and insufficient respect will be the least of their worries. 5) Idiocy in the media's portrayal of CIOs. I put this last for two reasons: first and foremost, it is the responsibility of CIOs, not of the media, to demonstrate the business value and strategic significance of their positions and of IT. And second, when it comes to these ankle-biters in the media, I'm loath to mention them because that's what they live for. However, in the interest of answering the question at the top of this page, I'll swallow hard and do it with two examples of media lunacy: Last month, a writer for CIO magazine's Web site said the following about CIOs: "I realize that I am in no position to judge whether these men and women are hard working. But I think we all know that it takes A LOT more than 'hard work' to get to the top in IT. It requires political maneuvering, butt-kissing and kicking others when they're down -- to name just a few of the stunts people have to pull to reach the highest levels of their organizations. Does that sort of behavior add up to hard work? I don't think so... . We also all know that some of the hardest-working IT people never get to be CIO precisely because they cannot play personal or company politics effectively (or because they don't want to.)" My, my -- I'll bet you didn't even know you were such a two-faced loser, did you? Be sure to thank the personality-profilers at CIO magazine for setting the record straight. And the know-nothing media aren't done with you yet, you conniving and back-stabbing butt-kissers! Apparently eager to pile on with some nonsense every bit as insulting and unfair as CIO mag's, Fortune magazine's Web site offers this: "There was a time when the geeks who keep a company's tech systems running could get by without knowing the finer details of corporate strategy. You called the chief information officer when you needed a server upgrade, not a strategic plan. "Well, those days are over. "This downturn could mean the end of the sequestered CIO -- that rumpled executive who, like Scotty on Star Trek, has limited social skills and usually emerges from the engine room only when something blows up. In these tough times, CEOs are frequently calling tech chiefs out of the wiring closet and into the boardroom, and putting their business skills to the test." Yes, indeed: Why do CIOs get no respect?

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  • Kalen
    Is it just me or does this seem like a bit of an exaggeration?  I'm sure there are stereotypes, but are CIO's really treated like corporate pariahs?

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