Real CIOs don't think like CIOs

If you run IT, you know that the rules of the game have changed. The yardstick by which you're measured, and the skillsets you need to succeed, are radically different than they were just a few years ago. Perhaps even more importantly, CIOs have had to change the very way they think. CIOs must now think like CEOs. Why? Because that's the only way they can manage technology and deliver services in ways that really drive business performance.

It's difficult to overstate how dramatic the change confronting the CIO has been. In the past, leading the selection and implementation of new technologies was a critical part of the CIO's job description. Pick the right ERP application, implement it relatively smoothly, and you'd be seen as a success.

You won if the trains simply ran on time -- and the wheels didn't squeak too much. You focused on meeting your uptime SLAs. You made sure users didn't have much to complain about, and that new projects didn't generate too much turbulence. These priorities kept your personal stock high -- even if they didn't move your company's stock price.

Even more striking is the relatively sedate pace at which things used to move. We managed "refresh cycles." Rather than push the envelope and make a colossal mistake, CIOs chose not to rush things.

Today, CIOs are operating in a completely different world. Everything moves at a blazing velocity -- and CIOs get no accolades for merely procuring efficiently or avoiding outages. Instead, they are being required to have a direct and quantifiable impact on the business. This means that they have to start by focusing on business priorities and challenges -- rather than infrastructure and software -- and then quickly implementing the right mix of internal and cloud services to address those objectives.

Successful CIOs must therefore:

  • Get immersed in competitive strategy. A winning competitive strategy is about both making the right choices and effectively executing on those choices. How does your company play to win? What new initiatives will improve its odds in the market? To chart this path effectively, you need a broad, 360-degree understanding of the business and, perhaps even more importantly, of your customers, competitors, and market trends. Based on this understanding, you need to constantly challenge yourself and your team, always asking, "How can IT best contribute to the competitive strategy of our organization?"
  • Manage decisively and leverage an agile IT response model. Competitive strategies can't be static. Increasingly, sustained competitive advantage goes to organizations that are purpose-built to adapt. Seizing new opportunities, responding to competitors, meeting business expectations in a chaotic economy -- all these things have to happen in near real time. The best leadership will understand the facts, make decisions, act urgently -- and, when necessary, make on-the-fly adjustments to current strategies. Just as guerilla tactics forever changed the face of war, agile IT is forever changing the face of business. IT has to be agile by design to support businesses operating in increasingly dynamic markets. Agile IT is no longer an aspiration, but a necessity.
  • Build a culture that's always striving for a better way and that defines success according to the business. It is the CIO's responsibility to give team members a clear line of sight to how they can affect the business -- and clear expectations about how they must perform. This leadership requires a strong understanding of constantly changing requirements and resources. The cloud, in particular, presents CIOs with an incessantly evolving set of choices. It is essential to keep making the right choices at the right time for the right reasons -- and to realize that choices made are not made forever. CIOs must continuously challenge previous decisions and push everyone to keep looking for a better way.

The wildly shifting dynamics in IT can lead to some wildly shifting prospects for those in charge. Managing this change will not be easy, but if CIOs start embracing the CEO's mindset, they'll be better positioned to meet their fundamental charters -- both today and when they do eventually wind up in the CEO's chair themselves.

Chris O'Malley is CEO of Nimsoft.  He has devoted 25 years to innovation in the IT industry -- most recently growing businesses in cloud and IT Management as a Service solutions.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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