The CIO: The duck billed platypus of the C-suite

This post is co-authored with Chris Curran Information technology is the only part of the business which is both a line and a staff function.  IT not only supports the entire business, but also helps to "make the donuts".  For example, at a retail bank, the CIO runs a big part of the operating business -- he or she is the vice president of manufacturing, for a bit based business.


This duality is not true of finance.  The CFO comes up through the finance function, and it is clearly a staff role.  The same is true of Sales.  Sales is always a line function, and not ever thought of as staff.  The career paths for each of these functions is well known, and no one talks about whether or not the CFO is aligned with the business, or if they are delivering business value.  Could you imagine making the distinction "finance or the business?"  It would be absurd, but it is normal to ask it of IT, and we think it comes from the dual nature of the IT role.

Furthermore, this dual role which IT plays fuels the debate as to what makes for the best background for the CIO.  Some people say that a CIO should have a business background and they can learn the technology.  Others argue that any CIO that is not strong technically has no ability to truly know the costs, content, and possibilities of technology in the organization and the industry.  We argue that because of this dual role -- where technology is both a line and a staff function, that the CIO should have a dual background.  They need to have a deep understanding of the technology and of the business.

The future will only bring more and more IT into both the support and the process of the business.  The need for CIOs that have both skills will only increase.  The vital requirement of organizations to have a strong leader who can both improve the current business in a staff role, and deliver the products and services in his or her line role, will only become more critical.

One of our clients began his career as a management consultant and then joined a financial services organization as the CFO of one of its business units.  After several successful years in the finance function, he was offered the job to run IT for the entire organization.  He was very successful in developing relationship with his peers, but very hands-off with the IT organization, which ultimately led to several strategic transformation programs stalling and a general lack of technologically-driven innovation.

We believe that his lack of experience in working in the trenches of the IT organization (note - being a programmer is not required to get the needed trench work) left him uncomfortable in engaging the right conversations at the right level of detail.  Ultimately, he left the organization and likely the CIO career path for good.

So the question for any large company is: Do you have the right career path to nourish and grow this dual skill set?  Or, by missing the dual role of IT, are you constantly looking for skills you don't have, can't find, and won't grow?

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