What should you never tell the CEO?

While honesty and candour should be every CIO's watchwords, there are some times when keeping quiet may be a good option.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor on

Successful CIOs have a great relationship with the chief executive. Engaged IT leaders - as ZDNet has looked at before - keep their CEOs informed about technology issues and business decisions.

But what about the corollary: is there anything a CIO should never tell the CEO? Engagement might be the watchword for successful IT management but what knowledge should technology chiefs keep close to their chests?

Focus on relationships rather than technical details

Former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says that, when it comes to speaking with the CEO, a lot of the well-rehearsed business clichés are actually correct. CEOs, he says, really are looking for solutions and not problems, particularly when it comes to the fine details of IT systems.

"Only tell the CEO about the nuts and bolts of technology if they ask," says Marks. "They probably won't want to know about the details of the platform, but they might want to know how you keep the technology up to date."

CIOs, therefore, might do well to keep a respectful distance. Yet Marks acknowledges that there will be times when IT leaders should be upfront with the CEO, even when common sense might suggest otherwise. "Sometimes you need the CEO's counsel," he says.

"There are times when you have to go to the boss and say that everything's broken. A big cheque might be the only solution to the challenges the business faces. Then it's all about proving value. Rather than asking for millions of pounds, explain the IT challenges you face and the potential business impact of doing nothing."

Omid Shiraji, former CIO at Working Links, also recognises that the relationship with the CEO is a crucial component of any IT leader's success. While some technology chiefs will focus on good news, he says smart CIOs will be less concerned with sensitivities around the role of IT and more focused on an honest assessment.

"If you always give good news, you can attempt to improve the perception of the IT department. That situation arises because CIOs often have a credibility and perception issue, which is associated to preconceived ideas about the role of technology in the business," he says.

"But candour is one of my guiding principles as a CIO and I try to be as honest as possible. Managing IT can involve a lot of bad news. If the CEO doesn't understand the role of technology, day-to-day operational concerns can create more negative opinions on the role of the CIO."

Shiraji says he heads off any potential misunderstanding by telling the CEO as much as possible about the interaction between business and IT. "It's important to give a truthful account, whether that involves good or bad news," he says.

Six conversation topics that CIOs should avoid with the CEO

Yet there will be some times when IT leaders would be well advised to take a step back. Richard Corbridge, CIO for the Health Service Executive in Ireland, gives five tips for technology chiefs who are about to engage with the CEO. He refers to Ian Cox, a prominent commentator on the role of the CIO, who recently published an open letter to all CEOs.

The letter from Cox, who is consultant at Axin, contains five pieces of advice every CEO should hear about the role of the CIO. Corbridge says the corollary of the positive advice in the open letter is a list of items that CIOs need never to talk about with the boss.

"I am sure most CEOs would list a set of common sense items based on the things they really don't want to hear, such as the CIO announcing they're leaving tomorrow or that the business has just lost millions of pieces of information to a cyber attack," says Corbridge. "But if a CIO wants to build engagement and ensure that technology is at the heart of the delivery of their organisation, I would also avoid these five topics of conversation."

1. Please can you give me some clarity on my role?

"As a CIO you are a member of the executive of the organisation," says Corbridge. "Use that role to clarify what is needed from you by the organisation, get closer to the business and then become part of it, rather than waiting for the boss to provide detailed direction."

2. I can guarantee you that this will never fail.

"Delivery of a digital fabric to any organisation cannot be done without breaking some eggs along the way," he says. "Do not promise the improbable. Educate the CEO that failure will happen and, when it occurs, you will be there to ensure issues are fixed and lessons learnt."

3. This project is technical and I don't need you to be involved.

"Enthuse the CEO with technology; don't put anyone off," says Corbridge. "If your leadership team wants to be involved, find ways to let them. The promotion of digital solutions as the answer to some problems needs to be promoted from the very top. A CIO with an enthused CEO is far more likely to get engagement on delivery."

4. I really don't need to be part of the board as it's all about the business.

Corbridge says that, as a CIO, you are no longer solely responsible for IT. "You are part of the business and, therefore, you are an equal partner in the decision making process of your organisation," he says. "You need to be around the table ensuring that the view of your expert area can be applied. You must demonstrate that you are a facilitator to business change being delivered through technology."

5. I'm here to make sure IT is up, not to deliver profit or avoid loss.

"Technology is a catalyst for business change; business change is required to make an organisation more efficient, less risky, or to improve the customer experience," says Corbridge. "Get involved in this type of conversation and your peers will be able to understand the value of what you offer as a CIO, and they will be much more enthusiastic."

Read more

Editorial standards