CIO Tony DePalma is on the cutting edge.
A 15-year veteran at Mineral Technologies, a $1 billion manufacturer of mineral whiteners and other products, DePalma arrived at the CIO's office from the finance side of the house.
He sees that as big plus. "The job requires constant communication with the business side, so that they understand the strategies you can bring to the organization," DePalma said.
According to Ellen Kitzis, a vice president at Gartner, DePalma is among a new breed of CIOs. Today, about 35% of CIOs come from the business side.
Even among CIOs who have IT backgrounds, about 30% have experience with business operations, according to Gartner.
"Over time, we're not going to see a difference between people coming from one side or the other," Kitzis said, because each type of CIO will have spent time in both worlds.
The author of a new book called The New CIO Leader, Kitzis kicked off the second day of the research firm's outsourcing conference in Los Angeles. Her message: CIOs are at a critical crossroads. If they are not using information technology as a business strategy, they are not leaders, but "extra-good mechanics."
"CIOs must lead, not manage, and not just on the demand side but on the supply side," she said.
If they don't, she cautioned, their companies will find strategic leadership elsewhere, from gurus and service providers to airline magazines.
What does it take to be a credible CIO in this brave new world? It's not just the vision thing, Kitzis said.
"Having a vision is great, but it won't get you where you want to go. Leadership is all about effecting change."
It's also not about being the smartest geek in the room. Strategic CIOs come to the table knowing what is valued in their organizations, she said. "They have a level of knowledge that doesn't make them stick out like a sore thumb."
Kitzis cited the example of a media company that puts out CDs and other products and services for that highly coveted -- but incredibly -- fickle 18- to 30-year-old consumer. For the CIO at that shop, "a six-month plan won't do. He has to be as agile as the company."
On the other hand, a company focused on being the lowest cost purveyor, the CIO's job is all about operational efficiency. "If you don't understand the business maxims, you can't sell your services," Kitzis said.
Kitzis' talk came packed with its own list of maxims, based on the 10 chapters in her book. Among them: The new CIO leader needs to shape and inform expectations; create clear IT governance rules, weave -- not align -- business with IT strategy; build an information systems organization; and manage risk.
CIOs had better also learn to toot their own horns. "You're the shyest people in the world," Kitzis told the crowd of senior technology executives.
CIOs come into their jobs with money in the bank -- the imprimatur of the top executives who hired them -- and they should not squander that. Rather than wait 18 months until a job is done, Kitzis urged CIOs to build credibility by delivering results incrementally.
One of the freshest insights from Kitzis? The new CIO recognizes that IT operates in a political arena. The company is the body politic. "If you make a sourcing decision, it is part of the political dialogue." Kitzis' advice for CIOs who don't like to play politics? "Get over it."