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How do CIOs get a seat at the executive table?

By: Dr Frits de Vroet

With the ever increasing impact of information technology on the business environment and society at large, the role of the most senior IT leader of the organisation is under close scrutiny. The requirements for this role have changed significantly. In many organisations, this is still a more technically focused role that is accountable for the efficient running of the organisation's IT applications and infrastructure.

Studies report that in about 48% of organisations, IT is perceived as a cost centre or service provider that primarily manages IT crises. Only 25% is seen as a true business peer who is involved in the broader decision making for the organisation. In order to be accepted as a true business peer, the CIO does not only need have a good understanding of the business impact of information technology, but also needs to be able to contribute to any other key business topics that arise. Ideally, this should be done as permanent member of the senior leadership team.

As long as the role of CIO has been around, there has been discussion around the inclusion or exclusion of the CIO in the organisation's most senior leadership team. So, if you're not part of the senior leadership team at present, how do you go about it? You cannot just step up to the CEO, CFO or other CXO that you may be reporting to and demand to become a senior leadership team member. You need to earn it...

Here are some pointers that may help:

Focus on the customer

This is what the other executives in the team will do. With the emergence of data analytics, the CIO is in a great position to support the development of new products and services for existing and new customers. This means meeting customers to understand how they use your organisation's products or services and what their future requirements are. An external focus will garner further exposure and initiate innovation. The often discussed relationship between the Chief Marketing Officer and the CIO is becoming closer and, as CIO, one should leverage that relationship.

Build credibility through contribution

The first thing a CIO needs to ensure is that the IT function within the organisation is under control and running smoothly. Without this, you won't have the credibility required to get involved in the broader running of the business. This often presents the CIO with a dilemma that needs to be managed closely: how to obtain or retain control of IT while getting involved in further development of the business through innovation? The CIO must ensure that proper (IT) governance is established. This will make the IT function accountable and more transparent. It also provides the opportunity to show other executives what achievement have been made and can take the focus away from potential IT crises. IT governance measures include the establishment of a Project Management Office (beware not to over bureaucratise this), IT Board, IT counsel, IT KPI reporting, etc.

Develop and expose your business acumen – be an equal business peer

The IT function is one of the few functions that has an integral view of the business. It supports the entire value chain as well as all the other functional areas. This brings good insight in the running of the organisation. That insight is very valuable in discussions with the senior executive team. The CIO should display the business acumen required and take part in discussions about all topics affecting the organisation and not only speak up when it is about IT. Only once other executives perceive the CIO as an equal business peer, the door to the board room will open. Participation in the organisation's broader governance, programs and work groups provide opportunities to demonstrate your business acumen.

Leverage your 'social acumen' – communicate through blogs, internal social networks, external engagements, twitter, etc.

Despite 'Social' being one of the key trends impacting our organisations, many executives struggle to get personally involved in external and internal social networks. They may be weary to get involved, leave it to their assistants or just don't have or take the time. I believe that many IT executives have good social acumen and this should be leveraged to lead other executives in this area. I have initiated the establishment of internal social networks in previous organisations and found this an excellent way to lift the exposure of the IT function by bringing something that many employees had been longing for. Both these kind of larger initiatives and smaller, day-to-day social activities (e.g. tweeting, blogging, LinkedIn posting) will demonstrate your social acumen and lift your influence at the executive level.

Assume broader responsibilities – Digital Officer, Data Officer, Business Process Optimisation, Procurement, Vendor Management, Innovation

Finally, there is a great opportunity for the CIO to assume broader responsibilities. After a couple of CIO roles, I took on a Chief Process Officer role in which I was accountable for IT (with a CIO reporting to me), Business Process Improvement (Lean Manufacturing, 6 Sigma), Business Transformation and Outsourcing/Offshoring. That combination of functions provided a great foundation to drive business change and process excellence. Again, the CIO generally has a broad view of the organisation and is well-placed to take on responsibilities in the area of data analytics, business process optimisation, digitalisation, etc. It does, however, require the above mentioned capabilities to succeed in these areas.

In conclusion, the current trends of social, mobile, data analytics and digitisation provide the CIO with a good opportunity to enhance his or her influence in the organisation and present (through performance) a good case to become an integral member of the senior executive team. A prerequisite is that the current state of IT is under control, IT is managed by a competent IT leadership team and that the right initiatives and projects are underway. Further, it is all about building relationships in and beyond the organisation and a proactive attitude towards further development of the business.

Good luck.

Frits de Vroet

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