The Title Is Information Officer... Chief Information Officer
BackBy John Bostick
Say the name Sean Connery, and virtually everyone will think of his most famous line: “The name is Bond, James Bond.”
Connery first appeared in 1962 as the character from Ian Fleming’s spy novels. Though five other actors have played Bond during the past 45 years, it is Connery we think of when we hear the famous musical riff from every film’s opening sequence. In fact, the actor is the standard against which all other would-be Bonds — perhaps even all other secret-agent characters — are measured. After all, does the name George Lazenby mean anything to you?
Yet, of the dozens of nominations and awards recognizing Connery’s acting prowess, none were for his role as James Bond. He starred in dozens of films other than Bond flicks, and he defied the bane of the acting world: typecasting. In fact, Connery won an Oscar not for playing a superspy, but for his turn as Jim Malone, the aging, street-weary Irish police officer in “The Untouchables.”
Connery’s secret? Transformation. He captured our collective imagination as the dashing British Bond, but he realized the role was ultimately a dead-end. He made the tough decision to abandon the lucrative role at the height of its popularity to improve his long-term career prospects. He then used his box-office appeal as leverage with the studios to land roles he knew were critical to his professional survival.
Today’s senior IT execs, and those who aspire to move up the ladder, can take a few pointers from Connery.
During the late ’90s, IT executives were the stars of many businesses, capturing the imaginations of their companies and customers by leading them in new directions with information technology.
E-commerce, Web services: Name a tech trend, and the CIO and his or her senior staff were in the lead.
But as technology advanced and the world moved from viewing it as a strategic advantage in and of itself to seeing it as an additional source of business value, CIOs and senior IT executives went from stars to bit players in their organizations. They were typecast as the tech geeks with no business sense.
Indeed, new priorities have replaced the corporate IT “space race” of the past century in the minds of C-level executives: compliance, mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance and outsourcing. No longer impressed with IT’s nuts and bolts, CEOs, CFOs and COOs are more concerned these days with the cost of IT and its contribution to generating value. With little more to offer than gripes about interoperability and woes about the shortage of IT workers, many CIOs risk losing their seats at the executive table.
Like Connery using Bond as leverage, today’s CIOs and other senior IT executives need to branch out from their traditional roles to become true information officers, the type who understands how technology applies to the financial, operational and competitive sides of the enterprise. Below are a few suggestions on how to fight the technology typecast.
Actors call this “sharpening their craft.” Business pundits call it “business-IT alignment.” What it means is understanding the basics of your industry and your organization first. Know your company’s customers, suppliers and competitors. Read broadly and deeply to be perceptive about management, markets, global culture and the rapid change that technology is driving in large part. Insert perceptive IT questions into your company’s customer satisfaction surveys and champion the insights.
Try to get a seat at board meetings as a participant, adviser, observer or guest. Develop IT buy-in with your executive peers to make sure you have a clear IT governance strategy that the CFO and/or general counsel helped develop. This is the first step toward an IT vision that ties into business objectives, strategies and measurements.
Refocus Your IT Organization Toward Business Value
If you want to increase your standing in the enterprise, you have to show more than mere competence at what’s expected.
For example, actor Ben Stiller gets a lot of work in Hollywood. But he doesn’t command Connery money. That’s because he’s essentially playing the same character in every movie.
CIOs and their organizations should emulate Connery’s ability to evolve with the times and adapt to the changing needs of the audience. Fluid departmental time management is an excellent example of adapting to dynamic conditions. Time and resources always will be finite; what will change is how those hours and resources are deployed.
Identify IT activities that have been commoditized. Some may be critical and require world-class performance, but they still will be commodities that offer no differentiating value to your company. Treat them as such. Outsource those activities to specialized providers, and then stack internal time and resources against objectives dictated by business strategy.
Remember the definition of an IT commodity will change over time and in response to market conditions. So stay agile and flexible with staff and budget deployment. At the same time, stay focused on the brainwork instead of the mechanical work, and you will provide greater value.
Also, keep in touch with your peers and keep tabs on their careers and employers. Outsiders have no political stake and can provide insight and honest feedback.
Much like distribution doesn’t measure a film’s success — the box-office does — activity in IT doesn’t equal results. Sure, your staff may be busy doing something, but that something might not be moving the business forward.
CIOs and senior IT executives must focus on leadership, goals and results. Tie your department’s results to business objectives. For example, if the business missed its numbers for the quarter, you should consider IT’s role in that deficit and how IT can help put revenue back on track. Keep measurements simple and aligned with executive priorities and operational plans. Measure IT in a business context rather than an IT-focused one, and you will increase your prestige with other executives.
Grow Business and IT Strategy Together
Some of the actors who played Bond after Connery followed his successful strategy and parlayed the stint as 007 into more lucrative work. Others did not. You should expect the same experience with your IT staff.
As you transform your role in the business, it’s important your people follow that path, as well. Encourage them to pursue the same kind of education and awareness that you are pursuing. And do what you can to provide growth opportunities for them. After all, you are a team, and you will only go as far as the team can take you.
For example, if there’s interest, you can provide your team members with an MBA career road map instead of an IT-centric employee development plan. Demonstrate to them that their careers have to be aligned with the business and not just tethered to IT. The more they understand how business works, the better prepared they’ll be to make valuable contributions to the organization.
Finally, accept that not all of the team will follow this path. Some will — and should — remain focused on the purely technical side of IT. In fact, it’s your job as a leader to help individuals discover when this role fits and what value it delivers.
The rapid pace of change in technology and the dynamic nature of global business put CIOs and senior IT execs, from midsize companies to major corporations alike, at risk of being typecast as one-role actors. If you aspire to the executive suite, you need to ask yourself: Am I Connery, or am I Lazenby?
John Bostick is president and CEO of dbaDIRECT. He can be reached email@example.com.