This content is part of the Essential Guide: 2015 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium guide: Digital disruption

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C-level relationships, engagement key to CIO success

CIOs spend 40% of their time engaged with the CEO, CMO, COO and other non-IT peers, according to MIT research. C-level execs explain why that time is so important.

As most CIOs know, success in customer engagement can have a great impact on the success of the business.

But engagement of a CIO's own peers -- at the C-level, in particular -- can be equally critical to a CIO's career and the goals he or she sets for the IT department. So said Nils Fonstad, research scientist at MIT's Center for Information Systems Research, while moderating a panel discussion on the influence of the digital age on CIOs at last month's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.

Fonstad cited research by MIT's Stephanie Woerner and Peter Weill that showed CIOs spend about 40% of their time engaging with non-IT peers -- up from 30% four years ago. "CIOs are able to take advantage of digital … by working with non-IT peers, whether it's the chief marketing officer, whether it's the chief operating officer, the CEO, etc. CIOs are not able to realize this value on their own," he said.

Panelist Shawn Banerji, managing director for Russell Reynolds Associates, a technology executive recruitment firm, pointed to the perils of a schism in C-level relationships for CIOs -- a problem that can relegate the CIO to a keeping-the-lights-on role.

"Historically, the CIO/CFO relationship was a very important one. It will continue to be prominent. But there are emerging new relationships such as with the marketing organization," he said. "If the CIO and CMO can't forge a productive work alliance, that's creating another opportunity altogether, which is the chief digital officer. That individual will come in and supersede the CIO for many of the more innovative aspects of the role as well as connecting with the CMO."

Peter Nichol, head of IT for Access Health CT, suggested that IT needs to "be the business." That is, the IT department needs to conceive of itself as a vital part of the whole organization, rather than as a separate unit operating under a different mandate. "If we look at ourselves as IT and the business being over there, by default, we're not the business, so we're a cost center. So, we should be eliminated. We should start to crank those costs down to eventually be zero or as close as we can get," he said. The CIO can combat that idea by regarding IT as a more integral part of the business – and, by extension, by more closely aligning with non-IT peers, Nichol suggested.

There are consistent competencies and qualities that tend to resonate with most successful CIOs, not the least of which is ... not [acting like] they have a monopoly on all the right answers.
Shawn Banerjimanaging director, Russell Reynolds Associates

Nichol also touched upon the "strength in numbers" theme. "If [the CIO pitches the] value [of a project or strategy by his or herself], it's going to be a really long-winded sales pitch that won't result in a lot. If you go in as a team with some of the other partners on the leadership team, you're in it to win it. … You have a lot better chance of adoption and a successful business outcome."

Another panelist, Brook Colangelo, executive vice president and CTO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said shadow IT presents an opportunity to engage with the other sides of the business, and sometimes it means admitting that the CIO isn't omniscient. "When someone says they have Dropbox or Box or some other shadow IT thing, my innate reaction is, 'Ugh.' Then I think, 'This is a good idea. … The business is on to something. Let's see if we can learn something and scale.'"

Banerji echoed Colangelo's call for CIOs to learn from their peers. Humility can go a long way in forging C-level relationships, he said.

"There are consistent competencies and qualities that tend to resonate with most successful CIOs, not the least of which is … not [acting like] they have a monopoly on all the right answers," Banerji said. But, he added, "it's also asking great questions, being a great listener -- really hearing what it is the business and other partners are seeking. Functional partners, internal stakeholders, customers. Being able to express genuine empathy, to be able to listen and genuinely hear and then be able to take that information, aggregate it and put it into action in ways that will bring others along on this iterative journey."

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