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CIOs must step into the digital leadership void

Martha Heller | Sept. 23, 2016
In this excerpt from her latest book, 'Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT,' contributor and IT executive recruiter Martha Heller discusses the CIO's role in digital leadership.

Bask Iyer, CIO of VMware, once told me about the “CEO missing-out syndrome.” It goes like this:

Most CEOs really like their CIOs. “My CIO is great,” they say. “She has kept costs down, has secured our enterprise, and runs a highly available infrastructure. In fact, she has done everything I have asked her to do since I hired her five years ago. However, I feel like I’m missing out. What with all of that innovation coming out of Silicon Valley,” these CEOs worry, “I must be missing out on some really cool digital disrupter that my competitors have surely discovered.”

CEOs who suffer from the missing-out syndrome do one of three things:

  • They anoint their CIO, formally or informally, as head of innovation and charge her with charting the company’s digital future.
  • They fire their CIO and hire a new one who arrives all shiny with the promise of digital innovation.
  • They gently push their trusted CIO to the operational margins and hire a chief digital officer (CDO), someone with a background in marketing, strategy, or product development to build and drive a digital roadmap.

This last move can spell real trouble for a company, says Iyer. “I’ve encountered many CDOs who can talk a good game,” he says. “They’ve read enough about digital technologies and have used enough mobile apps to convince the CEO that they are the right digital leader for the company. They come in and everyone loves them . . . for about six months. But they don’t really understand how to deliver technology change, so they flame out. A year later, they are gone, and it is the CIO who is left picking up the pieces.”

Currently, the average tenure for a CIO is five years. This means that a company can reel from major IT strategy shifts (“Outsource all of it!” “Bring it back inside!” “One turnkey solution!” “Best of breed!”) twice every decade. That’s a whole lot of change and a whole lot of money for an executive team to stomach. But CDOs, who arrive with their own list of technology investments, have tenures of eighteen months or so. They come in, set the strategy, and then leave before the ink is dry on their new vendor contracts. With two technology executives, each coming and going in a few short years, senior management winds up confused, frustrated, and farther away than ever from the promise of digital.

be the business book cover

“It appears we are experiencing a revival of a tried and failed axiom that the IT needs of a large enterprise are best served by the adoption of a joint technology leader configuration,” says Bob DeRodes, who has served as CIO of Home Depot and Target. “This concept is best described as having one bright, energetic technology leader charged with inventing new ‘digital’ capabilities while the other IT leader (the CIO) oversees ‘traditional’ IT. Two IT leaders means two IT strategies, two IT architectures, and one assurance of high cost and low interoperability.”


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