C-Suite Relationships: The CIO-CEO Partnership

This is the second post in my four-part series on CIO relationships across the business. You can read the first one here.

CIO-CEO PartnershipEven though data and technology are critical to every business today, too many companies keep CIOs on the sidelines during business discussions that drive the organization. Instead of helping to make critical business decisions, we’re merely expected to make sure outages and failures don’t disrupt the execution of those decisions.

However, today’s CIO is so much more than the head of tech infrastructure and support. In fact, many of us have business backgrounds in addition to technical expertise. With companies everywhere focused on digital transformation, that dynamic is changing rapidly and dramatically.

I experienced that change at Informatica, where my arrival as CIO coincided with our transformation to a subscription-based business model—requiring us to rethink our processes and technology from the ground up.

As I was getting up to speed in my new role, it was clear that this transition was more comprehensive than anyone had thought. With so many moving parts, our CEO, Anil Chakravarthy, was deeply involved. Because IT was going to be a foundational part of enabling this transformation, Anil and I realized the transformation wasn’t going to happen unless he and I worked together.

Being in the room

CEOs are more receptive than ever to the message that the CIO’s broad knowledge of the entire organization is a critical business asset. But if you don’t understand your company and the business goals it’s trying to achieve and how IT can enable them, you won’t have the chance to deliver that message. And if you don’t deliver that message, who will?

Of 388 CEOs surveyed by Gartner this year, 47 percent are being challenged by their boards to make progress in digital business, and 31 percent have IT-related goals such as building up in-house technology and digital capabilities as a top priority. Despite that, IT routinely gets slammed for focusing on the wrong things, or for lacking a sense of what the business needs, but how can IT know where to focus or what the business needs without being in the room where those decisions are made?

A vital part of the CIO’s role in helping CEOs and the management team think about how desired outcomes depends upon changes across the entire system—not just within a functional area. I would argue that the CIO is best placed to provide this perspective because his or her job has always required looking across functions at the end-to-end process. Now that many companies are going through a digital transformation, this end-to-end perspective is suddenly becoming required and valued.

Participating in management team and board meetings has given me the perspective I need to read between the lines and ensure the IT team is focused on the right outcomes. Being part of the discussion when decisions are being made helps connect the dots for everybody across the enterprise. And when needed, it helps us evolve a more cohesive strategy across the entire company. That—not just keeping infrastructure running—is the CIO’s job.

For example, our strategy to move to being a subscription and cloud company requires us to completely change the systems and processes supporting campaign-to-opportunity, quote-to-order, order-to-fulfill, and record-to-report. We also recognized the need for completely new processes, like adopt-to-renew, given the importance of renewal rate in the financial model for subscription companies. The early focus was on cloud, the thought being that it would be the fastest growth area, and therefore the priority for new systems and process investment. At some later point, our management team decided to offer all on premises products also via subscription.

At some point after this decision was made, someone might have thought that IT should be informed … maybe. Being in the room at the time allowed me to clarify the operational impact of this decision, then immediately pivot the IT plan to match the new desired business outcome.

I’ve seen the outcome when a strategy shift is decided, but not everyone is informed: Sometime afterward, an exec who wasn’t present when the shift was made presents a plan for his or her area that’s clearly inconsistent with the new strategy. It’s easy to conclude that this exec “just doesn’t get it,” when in fact nobody informed the presenter about the shift, thinking he or she “isn’t impacted.”

My background in manufacturing and supply chain taught me the importance of knowing how each piece of the process works together to achieve the desired outcome, from sales forecasts to shipments to delivery to support. That experience definitely helps me provide value beyond the IT function when I interact with the CEO, my peers on his management team, and our board.

Your value as a CIO lies in your own ability to look beyond operational IT to understand where IT can accelerate success across the enterprise. Even if this broader business perspective doesn’t come easily to you, you must push yourself to acquire it.

Relationships, not reporting structures

There are those who think that the mark of a good CIO-CEO partnership is when the CIO reports directly to the chief executive. If you’re reporting to the CFO, the thinking goes, you’re just a cost center. But the lines on an org chart don’t determine this. The CIO role isn’t unique in this respect, but because the role spans the enterprise, any meaningful success requires change across functions. Thus, relationships across the entire management team become at least as important as the direct line reporting relationship.

I have a strong relationship with our CEO, but I report directly to CFO Doug Barnett. That doesn’t mean the company sees IT as a cost center, though. Just the opposite: Doug is an advocate and partner who understands the impact IT makes and can help me explain to the board why our initiatives are worth the resources he dedicates to them.

In other words, the biggest part of building a strong relationship with your CEO is building strong relationships with your peers, based on your contributions, your focus, and your understanding of business strategy as well as the IT infrastructure that enables it.

CEOs surround themselves with the senior leaders who drive business success. The key to your relationship with your CEO is to be one of them.

Which changes do you see as critical in the development of the new CEO-CIO relationship? Have I left anything out? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Or tweet me.