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The evolving CIO role: What one headhunter says CIOs need to know

As companies become more information-centric, the CIO role keeps evolving. A veteran headhunter tells CIOs what his clients are looking for in the role of the CIO.

In this podcast, I talk with Shawn Banerji, managing director of the global technology practice at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., a senior executive search firm in New York. A veteran headhunter who recruits CIOs and CTOs across a variety of industries, he discusses the evolving role of the CIO, and lays out what his Global 5000 clients require and expect from their IT leaders. Operational smarts, in case you were in doubt, are the "table stakes." The frontier is monetizing IT assets and developing new products.

What follows is an excerpt from our conversation; link to the podcast to hear the entire discussion about the next big thing for the CIO role.

The CIO job has gotten its share of bad press over the years, including the dark joke that the acronym stands for career is over. But boy, is that joke getting stale. As businesses of all stripes become more information- and digital-centric, the CIO role is no joke for companies. In fact, the job has become central to a business' critical operations, including generating revenue.

Shawn, welcome.

Shawn Banerji: Thank you, Linda.

How long have you been headhunting CIOs?

Banerji: For the better part of a decade, now, Linda, close to 11 years.

Can you break it down in phases? What were companies were looking for in CIOs when you started, what was on their wish list five years ago and what are they asking for now in their chief information officers?

Banerji: The role of the CIO has been an evolving one over the course of really the last decade. And in the last three to five years, we have seen some fairly material changes in terms of the expectations and actual requirements of the job. If we go back to the late 1990s, when I first started recruiting in the space, the expectation for a CIO was essentially to be a large-scale project or program manager -- someone who [would be] able to operationally ensure that the systems in place actually worked, and the proverbial trains ran on time, and the associated bells and whistles went off when they were supposed to – that was really about as much as organizations were looking to get out of their CIO.

With the run-up to Y2K, this really cast a greater light on the function. [The] CIOs [in demand] were not only able to deliver against successful Y2K remediation but also began to take on some of the well-documented, large-scale ERP implementations, be it SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft, that were also in vogue at the time. Those events really conspired to bring the CIO role out of the darkness and into the light, if you will, in terms of corporate America.

And today, what's the difference?

Banerji: If we look at the CIO role today, it's interesting. In the current iteration, it really is for a business leader, someone with very strong commercial skills and vision who also is a superlative business operator. So, it is expected that those trains run on time. It is expected that the lights go on when they are supposed to. Those are the table stakes for the job.

Now the CIO role is a direct contributor to forming business strategy and market strategy. In content- and information-intensive businesses, the CIO is playing a much greater role with respect to taking ownership of product development -- and that transcends the actual technical elements of building and delivering product [to] the actual aggregation and monetization aspect of building products.

We see this permeating a host of industries, many of which appear to be quite disparate, from financial services to media and entertainment and many other industries in-between.

Why do you think this change is taking place? Is it because the technology has changed or because business models have moved or that the role of the CIO is so different?

Banerji: Some of it is event-driven, given the regulatory climate of the last five, six years -- things like Sarbanes-Oxley and other, perhaps more industry-driven regulations. That is one element of it. But another [change that] is also interesting, is that there has been a greater permeation of technology in the home. [For] many organizations and individuals, if you went back 10 to 15 years ago, maybe even five to six years ago, the office was still the most advanced place in terms of technology. It was not necessarily in the home.

And now, with the proliferation of technology in the home, and the level of sophistication and comfort that users have with technology -- they get to the office and say, ''I've got better connectivity at home. I've got better feature functionality at home. Why can't I do it here?" And that has put increased pressure on corporate technology and the office of the CIO to be able to deliver a more fluid, more functional, more user-friendly experience to the users in a corporate environment.

Can you tell us more about CIOs increasingly being asked to monetize IT assets or come up with new products for the company?

Banerji: It's really been in the last two years that we have seen that become more mainstream, if you will. But historically, CIOs have often been in an ownership position around data and information assets within the organization. On a purely technical level, they may have had accountability for the [data] marts, the storage, the warehouses, etc.

CIOs for a long time wanted a seat at the table and then when they got it, were shocked at the expectations placed on them. . . . You're seeing another iteration of CIO who understands that and is actually embracing it.

Those individuals, the more progressive ones, were able to look at those assets; analyze those assets; and then in collaboration with their line partners or other functional leadership, determine ways to take those assets and actually build commercially viable products. That could be re-engineering existing products and figuring out, "Boy, in the past we simply were not able to take this information and productize it, because the technology wasn't there to understand what we had on our hands, or it wasn't there to deliver it." But, with the technological advances we have now seen, the ability of organizations to productize heretofore noncommercial assets, or to re-engineer commercial assets and monetize them in new and innovative forms, is very compelling.

If we look at industries in the past that were used to selling their content on a one-off basis -- "I have an information product and you buy it from me as you need it." Well, CIOs who are accustomed to leasing software and the emerging model of Software as a Service (SaaS), they now say, "Wow, why can't we apply that same premise in how we deliver content to our customers. Why don't we go and embed our proprietary information assets in the workflows of our customers? And instead of charging them on an on-off basis, we are going to charge them on an annuity basis. So, instead of selling 10 high-priced products, we are going to sell them thousands and thousands of products on a SaaS basis and an annuity model. And we are going to make a lot more money and be a lot more profitable."

That is just one example of how CIOs are taking data and information assets, and figuring out new and innovative ways to productize and monetize those assets.

What about other IT leadership positions in demand? Anything you're seeing out there that is new and different in terms of who companies are looking for, for IT expertise?

Banerji: Well, I would share that, in the course of our work the mandate remains fairly consistent: "We, Acme Co., are looking for a chief information officer who is really a business person, albeit has functional expertise in technology." That's a pretty consistent, macro mandate that we are given.

Where it changes is in the genuine emphasis on commercial acumen that is expected the individual will bring to the table. So, strategic vision and planning no longer mean simply being able to select an ERP system and operationally project-manage it to a successful completion. That is certainly very important still.

But the added dimension is, "What decisions is this person making and how is it affecting our business at a strategic level?" Meaning: "We're thinking about getting into a new market," or "We're thinking about divesting an asset or making an acquisition. What role does technology play in the valuation of the acquisition or divestiture, the speed and time in terms of accomplishing the overall integration? Selecting the right service providers that allow you to drive this kind of change and transformation in the most effective, low-risk fashion. What products should we be considering? How are we going to deliver those products?" These are the things that the next-generation CIO has to be able to execute on.

I think CIOs for a long time wanted a seat at the table and then when they got it, were shocked at the expectations placed upon them from a business standpoint. I think that now you're seeing another generation, iteration of CIO who understands that and is actually embracing it.

Thank you, Shawn. We really appreciate this advice from an expert.

Banerji: Thanks so much, Linda. Anytime.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor.

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