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Shawn Banerji: CIO role at inflection point

It's tough being a CIO these days. Technology executive headhunter Shawn Banerji offers his advice on how not to be marginalized in 2015.

Shawn Banerji of the Russell Reynolds Associates executive search firm in New York was in a holiday state of mind. A week before Christmas, he had already been to three CIO events and had another coming up. "This is always an interesting time of year," he said, "getting together with clients, with successfully placed candidates, fundraisers -- I had a table of 10 CIOs to raise money for a good cause."

At such events the talk inevitably turns to the year gone by and what's in store for those in the CIO role; 2015 points to a divide between the hot and not-so-hot CIO.

"I really feel we're at an inflection point, because you have a very significant portion of the CIO population that is very excited about living through a shift in their role," said Banerji, managing director and a member of the global technology practice at Russell Reynolds.

Business partners, boards of directors and their companies' customers are looking to these fired-up CIOs "in a genuinely unprecedented manner" to create business value, he said. "They can't wait to step through that door. They really feel like this is the best time ever to be a CIO."

Shawn BanerjiShawn Banerji

But he said there is also "a not insignificant portion of the CIO population" that is troubled about these very same changes. These CIOs are telling him that the competencies they are expected to have and the initiatives they're expected to lead are things they haven't done before or been trained to do.

"They're concerned by not being able to step through that door. They're asking, 'Am I at risk of being marginalized? Am I at risk of being completely dis-intermediated?'" Banerji said. Their fears are not unfounded.

"I have clients tell me, 'I don't need Russell Reynolds to just go find me a legacy operations CIO,'" Banerji said. Finding a top-notch traditional CIO to run IT operations is by no means an easy task, he added, but that isn't what companies are hiring Russell Reynolds to hunt for.

"They are looking for people who understand digital and are able to drive those associated and broader transformations through the application of digital technology internally and with their external business partners," he said.

That's the language companies are using today when they talk about IT, but capitalizing on IT -- really using information technology to drive business -- remains a hard slog for most companies, Banerji said, even at companies that have managed to reel in that elusive transformational CIO. "These companies want to achieve certain outcomes, but their organizational structure -- and in many cases, their corporate culture -- is set up in a fashion that actually precludes or minimizes the ability for that CIO to be effective," he said.

Companies and candidates alike tend to "get obsessed" over titles, budgets and reporting to the CEO, but those old measures of CIO role success are meaningless in a situation where major transformation is required. "Forget about titles, I tell them. It is about nailing down content: what does the job actually entail -- and does the candidate have access to the appropriate people in order to be successful?" Banerji said.

2015 prescription: vendor relations, security, talent wars

CIOs can thank (or blame) the cloud for some of the upheaval around their jobs. Banerji said his corporate clients are increasingly comfortable with offloading commoditized IT operations to external providers that will provide all manner of computing as a service, or claim to be able to anyway. These service providers are extremely comfortable going directly to business power users to strike a deal, greasing the wheels with the following pitch: I can do it faster for you and more cheaply and in a more flexible manner than your own CIO can. 

"So some of these CIOs are saying, 'Boy, if I can't create meaningful business value, and the organization feels it can partner with these specific service providers to address the commoditized or more operational aspects of IT, what is left for me?'" Banerji said.

To remain relevant in 2015, Banerji advised CIOs keep three questions foremost in mind:

  • How do I work with service providers and vendor partners to generate the desired outcomes without marginalizing myself and my IT organization?
  • How do I ensure that the security environment at my organization is robust and sustainable?
  • How do I ensure that the people I am attracting and retaining in my organization are the right people, given the fluidity of the skill sets needed to deliver business value?

An important FYI: If security is not at the top of your 2015 agenda, put it there now. The single  fastest-growing part of the Russell Reynolds' CIO role portfolio is an IT executive with security chops. A few years ago, that person would have gone by the title, chief information security officer, sat in the networks function of the IT department and reported up through the head of IT infrastructure to the CIO.

"What we have seen in the last six months -- precipitated in part by the very high-profile security incursions and breaches -- is that organizations are rethinking this position in an incredibly fluid manner," he said.

How fluid? Not only is the role being elevated within the IT function, but in some cases it has also moved from under the CIO and placed under the CEO or, in some cases, as the head of enterprise risk.

Welcome to 2015.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or find her on Twitter at @ltucci.

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Do you believe the CIO job is at an inflection point?
Not exactly. I definitely see the job undergoing changes in the future, especially as the Internet of Things becomes... well... a Thing. However, that's more of a difference in degree than in kind. I think CIOs will spend even more time managing systems and working to automate processes in the future - which is actually something to watch out for, because they'll have less time to discuss what they're doing with the rest of the business.