CIOs: Want to get onto the Board? Just 'running' IT isn't enough

Still bitching about 'the business'? Then you've no business being on the board

Reg Roundtable For our third round table a few weeks back we took on an issue dear to the hearts of IT execs: getting a seat at the decision making top table. And who better to talk through this one than a roomful of CIOs who were on their own firms' boards.

Your first tip for moving up is to stop saying "the business". Stop saying it now and drum into your team that they must desist as well. For the sort of heavy duty outfit our IT execs work in, you’re looking at about 10 per cent (and often more) of the entire workforce being IT pros. If they are not in the "business", why are they even in the building?

More precisely, it is the very attitude of “them and us”, or “IT is just a cost”, or even “IT is peripheral” that undermines the case for your top table seat. A supermarket chain may depend upon delivery trucks, but no matter how well the guy in charge of maintaining them does his job, he’s never going to be part of strategy.

As one senior exec put it: “If you behave like a cost centre, you will be treated like a cost centre.” And what do we do with costs and cost centres? We make them smaller. Not really the best career move is it?

Because our CTOs are international, it emerged that what they called an "accountancy mentality" for IT, perpetuated this division, reducing both expectations and delivery, aiming low and not always even hitting that.

Strategy is not about maintenance. The IT execs were clear that it is the plan for change. One of the more eloquent quotes from an exec was “change is the new normal". A big theme that emerged was that cost-saving by itself is not the business driver that it once was, and certainly is not the best way of powering yourself up the food chain.

In the past a large percentage of top IT execs were accountants, who specialised in cost control because IT was seen largely as a cost centre and not even a well behaved one as both the size and unpredictable nature of IT spend alienated the rest of management, as did the lack of delivery. Several of the execs share that you need to understand and project that all departments screw up from time to time.

Ask Tesco or G4S, whose mountains of woe are nothing to do with IT. The fear of projects going bad has led many IT leaders to be as risk averse as Human Resources. This is a rational survival strategy, but useless at getting IT to be an agenda setter, instead of merely being told what needs to be done by a mix of accountants and marketing people.

You need to separate “screw-up risk” from “venture risk”. Execs who’ve gotten bogged down in fire-fighting miss the fact that the business need is for them to try changes that may fail, but that also offer an attractive upside.

If IT comes into the cycle too late, then you've got an inflexible waterfall model, no matter how agile your other processes. Part of leadership is knowing what to kill early and be in a position to do so, which you aren't if you’ve been merely handed an objective to produce a plan.

Of course there is also a need to occasionally show teeth, else you fall into a Nick Clegg cycle of perpetual apology, for decisions that were actually made collectively. Use (sparingly) phrases like "your fingers are all over this".

Conversely, one thing I always see at round tables is that although we have a dozen or so IT execs and at least that many opinions, they disagree without it turning into something from Game of Thrones. Perhaps dear reader the reason you are not yet at the top table is perhaps that you haven’t picked that skill up yet?

Communications skills in general got a lot of support amongst the IT execs, and you simply aren’t going to get there without them. It was even suggested that instead of a CEO studying CompSci and Maths (as I did), they should instead do CompSci and Drama. Your choice of words needs a deft upgrade. It is frankly very easy to find out which business buzzwords are fashionable at your organisation this quarter and you should be ashamed that you don’t know them.

Note how I said “quarter”, not week or month - that is the lump of time that decision makers often care about. Maybe they want customer “engagement” or “retention” or margins, I don’t care, but you should.

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