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For IT Leaders, the times, they are a changin’—Fast!


Joel Dobbs.GIFJoel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business.  Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Executive CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.


The line it is drawn/ The curse it is cast/ The slow one now/ Will later be fast/ As the present now/ Will later be past/ The order is rapidly fadin'/ And the first one now/ Will later be last/ For the times they are a-changin'.   - Bob Dylan


I wrote a post on this site recently that speculated what the CIO of tomorrow would look like. I conjectured that the role of the CIO would bifurcate into two paths, one a strategic, profit center leader much like a divisional president and the other a purely operational and administrative function that most closely resembles “data processing managers” of the past.  Now we are seeing this happening in at least two large retailers, with more likely to follow both in retail and in other industries.  As Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a changin.’


Two examples come from the retail segment. The highly successful Starbucks has created a Chief Digital Officer role, an externally focused executive dedicated to using technology to drive growth and service customers. The CIO role was relegated to an operational focus.  J.C. Penney, who is struggling to reinvent itself, completely eliminated the CIO role in favor of a Chief Technology Officer who is externally focused on using technology to strategically drive growth and engender customer loyalty.  Both companies have reinvented the CIO role in favor of a single technology executive with a strategically oriented, “grow the top and bottom line” mandate.  I suspect that we will see more of this. 


Things to ponder regarding the changing role of the CIO


What are the lessons for today’s IT leaders?  Here are some suggestions for what to think about in light of the changing role of the CIO. 


 Are you at the table?  If you are part of the executive team, the executive committee or other senior leadership groups are you an active participant or are you largely silent, or worse, are you the guy who fixes the projector when someone’s PowerPoint won’t display?  If you are not a full partner, watch out.


Where do you spend your time? Are you spending most of your time on operational matters and fire-fighting or have you freed yourself from operational tasks so that you can focus on being a strategist and change agent?  In one of my former companies I appointed the equivalent of an IT COO, a talented guy who loved operations, to handle that end of the business so I could be more outwardly focused. I recommend CIOs strategically outsource commodity functions either by sending these to an external service provider or by using the emerging SaaS and cloud offerings.  For instance, in this day and age I seriously wonder why anyone still manages an internal e-mail system.


Do you have good working relationships with your peers?  If not, don’t be surprised if you have few defenders when discussions about your future arise between your boss and peers.


Tips to help aspiring CIOS


If you are aspiring to become as CIO make sure that you are proactive about career planning and development. Some suggestions:


  • Get educated on business. If you come from a technical background take advantage of every opportunity to learn and become fluent in business. This may mean going back to school to get an MBA or attending an intense executive development programs (mini-MBAs) offered by leading business schools. It could mean volunteering for projects and task forces that enable you to work with peers outside of IT and to expose you to various parts of the business.


  • Check your perspective daily.  Do you see the world through the eyes of the CEO, board of directors and key functional business leaders, or do you view everything through the prism of technology?  To truly succeed in tomorrow’s world you need to be able to do both. You need to speak technology AND business.  The best CIOs, because they are fluent in each, are effective “translators.” They can take complex technical issues and “translate” them into easy-to-understand language for their non-technical colleagues and vice versa.


  • Finally, help others be successful.  As motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “You can get everything in life you want if you help others get what they want.”  Look out for the best interest of the company.  Don’t fall victim to being a victim and don’t succumb to “IT groupthink” where excuses for why innovative initiatives can’t be done are the norm.  See my post on Do your homework! for some examples.


Other guest posts by Joel Dobbs:


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