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Why being strategic matters to a CIO

An excellent article by Sanjay Mirchandani is president and CEO of Puppet, on Forbes.

Here's a quick summary:

Sanjay Mirchandani is president and CEO of Puppet, the standard for automating the software that powers everything around us.

IT has a perception challenge. While IT is the heart of the business, it is frequently overlooked as a back office firefighter -- or worse, the cause of a problem during an outage or a help desk call. If transactions are not processed, customers are not supported or products are not shipped on time, IT is often blamed.

That said, times are slowly changing. Businesses now require more performance, stability and security with digital innovations to penetrate new markets and disrupt their industries. As the CIO, you can use your end-to-end view of the business to help the company succeed. But first, your leaders must see you as strategic.

As an accidental (and now recovering) CIO, I quickly learned to shift my focus from being technical to having a business strategy while overcoming challenges and promoting our contributions better to earn a seat at the table. Here are some learnings that have worked not just for me but also for other strategic CIOs who are now CEOs.

1. Own A Business Within The Business

To be perceived more strategically, CIOs should ask to run an additional business. For instance, as a CIO, I led the company’s Centers of Excellence which helped me:

  • Experience first-hand what IT’s internal customers received or endured daily

  • Use business unit metrics to manage the team like any other business line

  • Prove my ability to drive operational excellence and pursue business results that matter

  • Enhance my ability to negotiate with other leaders and advocate for my businesses while communicating our goals, results and point of view

  • Go on the offensive to prove I was able to aggressively pursue and accomplish business goals.

2. Focus On Business Value — Not The Technology

Now, after urging you to make your life even more exhausting by running a second distinct business unit, you must also run IT like a business that is competing with other suppliers for survival — because, frankly, it is. We can bemoan shadow IT, but users feel we are frustratingly slow and unable or too expensive to help them. With a swipe of a credit card, they solve their technology problems without telling us.

We need to be a broker of value that understands and serves the needs of its customer effectively. Does finance need a comprehensive enterprise resource planning (ERP) package, or will a simpler, lightweight application do the trick? Do you really need your developers to spend months creating a homegrown ticketing system or can you just buy a secure software as a service (SaaS) solution to get it up and running in weeks?

While we may still need to roll up our sleeves to build a tool or system internally, IT practitioners need to be willing to buy, build or rent what is needed to meet the businesses’ needs, technical requirements, budget and timeline. Quickly accomplishing this will help you be seen more strategically as a business leader.

3. Communicate The Vision And Value Inside And Outside Of IT 

While IT may be seen as a defensive player, communicating effectively will help you change this perception and reinforce that IT doesn’t just provide guard rails, it adds value to the business. This will help persuade shadow IT users and gain the respect of your business leaders.

In addition to having an ongoing dialogue with the leaders, you must also effectively and empathetically arouse the competitive spirit of your team. They are your partners in crime and may need to dive into an unexpected initiative faster or with fewer resources. Enhancing how you communicate will inspire them, leading you to earn their trust and support.

When I became a CIO at EMC in 2008, the global economy was in rough shape and our business was being asked to make some huge changes. I wasn’t alone -- our customers were in the same situation. To maintain stability, I conveyed our rationale and strategy daily. In addition to maintaining a maniacal focus on results and execution in IT, we realized our core ERP systems were in desperate need of an overhaul.

We needed a few hundred million dollars to revamp our systems, but cash flow was very tight during the recession. While everyone was cutting expenses, we invested to ensure that when the recession was over we'd be ready to meet pent-up demand and gain an edge in the marketplace.

The risk paid off. However, if IT hadn’t been running as a strategic business, I couldn’t have persuaded the CEO and the rest of the team to invest at that time.

The Strategic CIO Is A Great CEO Candidate

Does being strategic matter to a CIO? Absolutely. As a CIO, you need to provide value to your business through space and time -- from the 30,000-foot view to actual implementation, and from next quarter's performance to the five-year plan. This is satisfying in itself, and it's also a career builder.

If you earn your seat at the table, you are better positioned to see where and how you and your team can provide value to the business. Not only is it more exciting and satisfying for you as a CIO, but you'll get into the practice of making your value known throughout your organization. I don't think there's any better preparation for becoming a CEO.