Waiting to play: Overcoming 'The CIO Paradox'

Waiting to play: Overcoming 'The CIO Paradox'

Summary: CIO's face significant challenges regardless of their skill, experience, and ability. Learn how to align with the business to drive innovation and transformation.

Photo credit: "Waiting to Play" by Michael Krigsman

Today’s CIOs are in a tough spot. Lines of business expect IT to have strategic insights laced with scintillating brilliance; management demands that IT be a paragon of cost reduction; and enterprise vendors feed the CEO nonsense, like saying that software alone will solve the hardest business problems. Given this virtually impossible burden, it’s no surprise that CIO job tenure is often short.


Knowing all this to be true, I read with interest a blog post from entrepreneur Mark Fidelman, called Here's the CIO Playbook for the Next 5 years; of course, with a title like that I couldn’t resist. The article reviews The CIO Paradox, a book written by executive search expert Martha Heller.

Heller identifies contradictory dimensions of the CIO role in four important areas:

Your stakeholders

  • You run one of the most pervasive, critical functions, yet you must prove your value constantly.
  • Your many successes are invisible; your few mistakes are highly visible.
  • You are intimately involved in every facet of the business, yet you are considered separate and removed from it.
  • You are accountable for project success, but the business has ownership.

Your organization

  • Your staff loves technology but must embrace business to advance.
  • Your team members are uncomfortable with people, but to succeed they must build relationships and influence others.
  • You develop successors, yet the CEO almost always goes outside for the next CIO.
  • You are forced to seek cheap overseas sourcing, yet you are expected to ensure the professions development at home.

Your industry

  • Technology takes a long time to implement, yet your tool set changes constantly.
  • Technology is a long-term investment, but the company thinks in quarters.
  • Your tools cost a fortune, yet have the highest defect rate of any product.
  • You sign vendors' checks, yet they try their darndest to sell to your business peers.

With contradictions like these, it’s no wonder that even great CIOs have a stressful and difficult job; precisely the paradox to which Heller’s book refers. To solve the problem, Heller suggests that CIOs develop skills and relationships that align more closely to business needs. In other words, successful CIOs possess leadership skills and detailed understanding of their company’s operations, challenges, and strategies.

Fidelman summarizes the whole thing with a clever diagram:

Overcome 'The CIO Paradox'
Image credit: Mark Fidelman

As you can see, the diagram shows that successful CIOs bring together the skills of technologist, leader, and diplomat. And that, dear friends, is precisely right. The diagram explains how lack of skill in any one of these areas manifests as a deficiency. Although we can nitpick exact terminology in the intersection points, the diagram is directionally correct and quite powerful. One point is worth noting: the center is labeled, “not a CIO.” I interpret this to mean that anyone possessing all these skills transcends the limitations of CIO-ness to become a genuine business leader. Again, this view is consistent with my experience talking with CIOs on a regular basis.

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Although CIO success demands these skills, senior management support is necessary for any CIO to become a trusted and strategic advisor to the business. If senior management views IT as little more than a cost center and hassle, then strategic relationship is unlikely.

For this reason, I advise CIOs to hone their own skills and turn IT into a top-notch execution / delivery machine, all of which builds credibility and enhances relationship with the business. Only after taking these steps does it make sense to focus on helping transform the business as a whole. Ultimately, if the organization is unwilling to accept a seasoned and skillful CIO as strategic partner, then perhaps it’s best find another company that is more receptive to innovation and change.

Topics: NextGen CIO, CXO, Enterprise Software

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  • thoughts

    "You are forced to seek cheap overseas sourcing,"


    "Fidelman summarizes the whole thing with a clever diagram"

    Wow, do you actually believe that piece of junk?

    Technologists and leaders aren't strategic?
    Technologists and diplomats aren't proactive?
    Leaders and diplomats aren't innovative?

    None of them are CIOs?

    Do you actually believe that??

    "As you can see, the diagram shows that successful CIOs bring together the skills of technologist, leader, and diplomat."

    Actually, it claims that they're not. Unless the word "not" has changed its meaning recently and I didn't get the memo.

    That's the worst diagram I've seen in a long time.

    "I interpret this to mean that anyone possessing all these skills transcends the limitations of CIO-ness to become a genuine business leader."

    Your poor grasp of the word "not" is quite astonishing.

    Frankly, the diagram is poorly made and poorly worded. And blatantly false.

    Of course I hope the average CIO is doing more than worrying about high level abstract concepts anyways.
    • Strong passions about the topic

      CobraA1 -- Appreciate your passionate stance on the diagram. It's not perfect but it adds insight to the conversation, which is really the point.

      If we look at the larger issues raised in this piece, let's keep something in mind --- CIOs have two paths before them. Either find a way to innovate with the business or become marginalized as providers of feeds and speeds.

      Smart CIOs will not see this as an abstract concept, but rather as a practical and definitive starting point to add tremendous value to their organization.
    • Whoa - You missed the paradox

      The diagram was used to show how CIO's can't win no matter what they do. If they meet two out of the three, then they are not (insert complaint) enough. If they meet all three, then they are not considered a CIO but something else. The diagram was used to support the articles message which in my experience in talking to hundreds of CIOs is the case.
      • You mean the invented paradox to make it sound philosophical?

        You mean the invented paradox to make it sound philosophical?

        CIOs are technologists by trade - it's their job.

        CIOs are leaders by position.

        CIOs are diplomats as a function of being leaders.

        Now - perhaps some CIOs may not be the best leaders, or not as forward thinking as you'd like, or may try to avoid diplomacy, but that doesn't mean they stop being technologists, leaders, or diplomats.

        So basically you've taken three words with a more concrete meaning and put a subjective spin on them. You personally think they are poor at one of these things, therefore in your mind they are "not" these things.

        There's no paradox here, only a heavy investment in philosophical malpractice.
  • Organisational skills are the main thing a CIO needs

    Management skills in other words.

    Absolutely vital skills that neglected because some people think they a boring.

    The people who think management and organisational skills are boring are usually the kind of people who are incredibly skilled at spouting rhetoric and selling themselves.

    These people (the so-called leaders), generally spread chaos and demotivation through the whole of IT and most of the rest of the business.
    • We agree!

      @jorwell --- you are absolutely correct. Any CIO who does not pay attention to politics and working with the business is doomed to fail. Dealing with people may require a new set of skills, but it's better to learn and thrive than to ridicule and fail.
      • Organizational skills are very important

        This means actually organizing things.

        Persuading people to use the proposed organization is the next step and requires diplomacy and tact.

        However without the organization, people aren't even in a position to oppose the proposals.

        I've seen plenty of CIOs and IT managers that are big on rhetoric, may be technically skilled but from an organizational standpoint couldn't run a bath, never mind a department.
        • As a further point

          The proposed organization does have to be based on an understanding of the business, logic and reason not on power politics.

          As someone who is not particularly well organized I am always prepared to give my unstinting support to a manager who is able to bring forward well reasoned, well thought out organizational plans that he or she has the persistence, diplomacy and tact to implement.
      • If you never fail

        You aren't pushing yourself to your limits and therefore aren't learning anything.

        As Adam Ant put it "ridicule is nothing to be scared of".
    • True; managers need managerial skills

      However I'd argue next in importance is technical knowledge; not just IT but financial and business processes.

      Lack of technical understanding and the ability to communicate this understanding to others (the majority of whom have little technical knowledge) is critical for a CIO, and an area often lacking.

      Diplomacy and politics helps with keeping a job; offers little value to the company.
      Richard Flude
  • That photo is scaring me...

    ...and I'm a cellist, rather than a bassist. I can't imagine any bassist resting his instrument against a stool like that. Big stringed instruments are fragile and the string bass is the biggest one in common use.

    A computing or engineering executive has to be techie enough to understand what his people are doing and what to expect, and manager enough to know how to lead them and how to meet the wants and needs of his firm. I disagree, though, that the intersection of the circles is "not a CIO"; rather, it's the ideal tech executive, regardless or rank (ie. there is no paradox).
    John L. Ries
  • CIOs are value-subtract

    The only thing I've ever seen a corporate idiot officer do is make it impossible for me to do my job. They seem to think I come to work to run their stupidities instead of doing my job, which is making money for the company by serving our customers. The latest? Invincea. Now there's a complete load of cr*p.