C-suite changes

Ambitious IT pros seek COO role

To effect truly strategic and visionary change, motivated tech leaders are looking at operations rather than IT.

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For Duane Anderson, a CIO-plus role has always been a goal. Anderson, now CIO/COO at marketing agency Marquette Group, has had several key mentors, including Tekexec's Stanley, who blazed the trail for a broader CIO role when the pair were at Harrah's Entertainment, now Caesars. "It was part of the proving ground when I came up," Anderson says. "I didn't know that it wasn't normal."

Given that IT has become so strategic to what most companies do, Anderson says it's imperative for the CIO to report to a visionary leader like the COO or CEO, not the CFO, who tends to become too focused on IT as a cost center. "For any technology initiative to be successful, it's not just about the technology being implemented, but also about the processes around it and the people who can deliver," he explains. "That coupling of CIO/COO -- whether it's a dual role or a direct report -- helps unlock the three ingredients of people, process and technology."

When Anderson started at Marquette in June 2009, he came onboard as CIO; there was no formal COO position. After a couple of years, Anderson was recognized for driving a lot of the product direction and for identifying the business requirements that were influencing where the company should be headed, he says. The carrot, he says, was an offer to become the company's first-ever COO.

The benefits of having core IT, operations, and development and infrastructure report to a single person have been significant, Anderson says. "We now have much more streamlined requirements between operations and IT and a much closer melding of the groups now that they are under one purview," he says. "While there are still lines of demarcation, it's much grayer -- it's no longer that there's a business customer over here and the IT group over there."

For years, the goal of top CIOs has been to understand and get closer to the business, but what's different with these new reporting scenarios is that there is actual authority to get things done, adds West Monroe Partners' Chaplin. "While a CIO may understand the business side, those business folks don't report to him and he can't control how often they meet with him or what training they get," he explains. "If he's in charge, he can mandate expectations of the team and have authority over them that was previously lacking."

Having the power to make decisions across the business is what Learning Ally's Hamburger knew was essential to achieve the company's aggressive goals. Given the cost pressures and the demand to move quickly, Hamburger says there was no room for the usual roadblocks impeding IT deployments, including traditional layers of leadership.

"We don't have the time to think about business requirements and then translate them into IT requirements and then start programming with a waterfall approach to building systems," she explains. "We needed a more iterative 'test, learn and change' environment, and to move that fast, we couldn't have all those handoffs in the organization."

Hamburger is using a similar approach to building out her team. "I don't run a technical or operations team any more -- I run a combined team," she says. "We're not just combining things at the C-level, we're integrating operations and technology at the next level because it makes for a more efficient organization."

Unique skill set required

While there are synergies between the CIO and COO skill sets -- strong communications skills, deep knowledge of the business and robust leadership chops -- not every CIO has what it takes to win oversight of operations. While CIOs typically have a keen understanding of metrics and key performance indicators, a COO needs knowledge of how the business is performing and what levers to push to drive the necessary outcomes, says Tekexecs' Stanley.

Profit-and-loss (P&L) experience, understanding value creation across the business, and earning the confidence of the rest of the C-suite are other characteristics that will help a CIO move confidently into COO territory.

"A good CIO receives strategy from other members of the C-suite or division heads and recognizes the IT components articulated in those plans," Metis Strategy's High says. "The really great CIO-plus recognizes that there are themes emerging across the different strategies, and from that strategic perch within the organization, starts to tie things together across divisions."

Then there are some tried-and-true IT habits that will have to fall by the wayside, says Stanley. "You have to purposely forget to be a 'techie CIO,'" he explains. "And you have to have an intellectual curiosity about things that traditional CIOs find a little ephemeral or distasteful" -- like brand marketing, for example.

Barry Carter says it was his ability to recognize and articulate how to solve operational issues in the language of the business that ultimately won him the CIO/COO spot at EFG Companies, which develops consumer protection strategies for businesses. Carter, who came in as CIO reporting to the CEO in 2012, had P&L responsibility at a previous post as well as operations experience, which primed him for taking comparable responsibility at EFG.

"As CIO you get to see the business from end to end," he says. "As you automate processes, you start to see the macro picture on how to influence the business, and pretty soon you get really good at knowing what's needed to run operations."

Under his direction, EFG resolved some major issues surrounding how it met its service levels and financial targets -- a set of work that earned Carter the COO post after less than year.

In the end, Carter says it's not really about the title, but about the influence. "We're seeing a blurring of titles and accountability," he says. "The person that delivers the most value for the company is the one getting the more senior spot."

Longtime Computerworld contributor Beth Stackpole most recently wrote "Tech Hotshots: The Rise of the QA Expert."

This article, "Ambitious IT Pros Seek COO Role," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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