Waiting to play: Overcoming 'The CIO Paradox'

CIO's face significant challenges regardless of their skill, experience, and ability. Learn how to align with the business to drive innovation and transformation.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor
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.

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