CIO role: A salesperson who feels your pain

The CIO role calls for a salesperson, but not the snake-oil variety, says the FCC's CIO. Consultative selling is about finding and fixing pain points.

Robert Naylor, CIO at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has an idea about the CIO role that he'd like to pitch.

As IT organizations move forward into the Information Age, opinions abound about which skills are most desired in the CIO role. Some focus on harnessing burgeoning technologies, such as mobility and cloud. Others call for a focus on softer skills, such as leadership and team building, or being able to make the right hiring decisions at the right time at the right price.

If you really have a handle on how to do a consultative type of sale with someone, then you're focused on solving a pain point.

Naylor, however, whose pre-FCC résumé includes his presidential appointment to the role of CIO at the U.S. Small Business Administration, believes there is one requisite skill set for CIOs that envelops all the above.

"Believe it or not, a good CIO should be trained in sales; they should have a consultative sales approach," Naylor said.

In business terms, consultative selling is an approach in which the salesperson plays the role of consultant: assisting prospective customers in identifying their needs, then customizing products or services to satisfy those needs.

For Naylor, identifying his internal customer's needs and resolving the organization's challenges and pain points is the best way to champion, or "sell," technology. "If you really have a handle on how to do a consultative type of sale with someone, then you're focused on solving a pain point. Part of that consultative-sales type of approach is you're identifying your [return on investment] and you're getting buy-in on an ROI along the way," Naylor said.

In this approach, the ROI of a technology investment is rolled into the sale. If the pain point can be solved by a given technology and IT can deliver that technology, how much is that worth in money, time, aggravation and so on, he said.

CIO role calls for a 'social being'

The concept of CIO as consultative salesperson to the business was echoed in a panel on next-generation CIO leadership at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Dan Sheehan, who recently left his position as CIO at Dunkin' Brands Inc. to become chief operating officer (COO) at sporting goods retailer Henry Modell & Co. Inc., underscored the importance of knowing the business -- inside out. His first few weeks on the job were spent immersed in the business, "understanding what the lowest level of the organization is faced with," Sheehan said. Enabling technology is the easy part, he said, but getting people to adopt it is a challenge. "People don't like to change," he added. Understanding what their pain points are and driving the technology adoption that will ease those pain points is part of leadership as a CIO or COO, he said.

Fellow panelist Rob Stefanic, CIO at Sensata Technologies Inc., said he has taken on the role of selling his company to prospective employees. The Attleboro, Mass.-based maker of high tech sensors for the automotive and aircraft industries has to compete with tech giants for talent. Gen-Xers put a high premium on technology, in particular, the mobile and social networking platforms they take for granted in their personal lives. Knowing what kind of IT they can expect from a company factors into their decision. "The CIO is now impacting the brand," he said, and is becoming the "face of the company" for new employees, At the other end of the spectrum, are older, "40-plus" employees, whom the CIO must sell on adopting technology that will help the organization, he added.

Even if a CIO has mastered the consultative approach, inculcating that mindset in IT organizations could be a challenge, according to Shvetank Shah, executive director at The Corporate Executive Board Co., a Washington, D.C-based consulting firm. Most IT shops "have grown up with structured processes," said Shah, who was a panelist at a session on big data at the MIT event. The biggest pain points and greatest opportunities for many companies today, however, don't necessarily lend themselves to traditional IT processes, he said. Exploiting big data, fostering collaboration, and supporting research and development require an iterative, people-centric approach, he added. "Folks trying to understand [these areas] need to be anthropologists," he said. "It's a stretch for the folks in IT to pivot." The first group for consultative CIOs to sell might well be their own staff.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer. Senior News Writer Linda Tucci contributed to this story.

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