CIO Crosses Chasm to CEO

By Thomas B. Cross @techtionary

CIOs are being increasingly challenged to cross the communications chasm if they want to be the CEO.  Long ago, I worked with a CIO who wanted to be the CEO and he learned everything he could about what his CEO was doing strategically and then adopt that way of thinking with his department. He did become the CEO of a fintech company with little experience in financial services but with keen observation of playing the part of the CEO he became one.  In an indepth paper by Gartner, they express a serious concern for CIOs who want to be more than the company nerd head.  As Tina Nunno pointed out “ With less than 35% of the C-suite able to have a meaningful conversation about how I&T enables that success, it is up to CIOs and their teams to bridge the gap by learning how to speak in language that will resonate with the CEO, CFO, board and other executives.”  This is a sad state of affairs when only 35% of CIOs can get out of their shadow and walk in the moccasins of their boss and the board of directors.  In one of the great movie scenes from the Caine Mutiny Jose Ferrer expressed concern that a ship captain could not have gotten to that position without a strong skillset.  Indeed, CIO’s didn’t just wake up and be the CIO, they had to learn strong technical skills and evolve those skills in to management and leadership within their own domain.  However, by only looking within their comfort zone many failed to look above and beyond as to where the company was going.  “It’s more than being the cybersecurity white hat hacker or running the helpdesk,” as one CIO mentioned.  I need to know what every other department is and does to become the CEO and that “will still not be enough if I don’t know what Wall Street is saying about us,” noted another CIO.  “Its way beyond what I thought I would be or trained for,” noted another CIO. 

At this point, we see that most CIO’s are stuck and generally just go to a larger or different company to be the CIO somewhere else.  If, however, you are inclined to think that they CIO can become the CEO and has the will, interest and desire to be one, we must look like Jose Ferrer did elsewhere to find the answer.  One answer lies in the ability of anyone to go beyond what they are doing now.  In many interviews with CIO’s and CEO’s they often and expectedly look at the situation very differently.  The CEO is looking for “spark and initiative” from the CIO or other department heads.  The CIO and others are looking for someone “to help me get a leg up” on what needs to be done.  Clearly there is a chasm to cross at this level as well.  Moreover, crossing the chasm is more about personality than even skillset.  Yes, strong leadership and management is required but CEO’s want someone they can transition to when time comes for them to leave.  If that be the case, CIO’s and others need to expand their communications skillset which is one of the other key issues in the Gartner paper.

As you can see from the graphic, Gartner breaks the issue down this way:

  1. Board feels uncertain about technology; CIO feels uncertain about the board
  2. Board avoids CIO or asks a minimal number of questions
  3. CIO guesses or gives them what they asked for, but did not want
  4. Board and CIO discomfort increases; cycle repeats itself

That is not the way I would put it, however, there are many ways to slice this.  In my own research, all parties to the communications transaction need to be “talking the same language.”  Board-speak and CIO-speak communications language issues need to be resolved upfront before the presentation either by the CEO or others doing the “language translation.”  For example, the CIO who became CEO mentioned above said he would “translate everything the Board and CEO says into his language and do the same in reverse.”  He found that Boards/CEO don’t want to translate what you are saying themselves; they want you to do it for them.  He also found out that by doing his reports in “CEO/Board speak” were more readily accepted saving time and effort re-working them again and again. 

Summary – To keep this analysis brief I can only add that we all use acronyms far too often. Within our specific groups it works fine but when you extend parochial language to a broader audience you end up with major language failures, errors and potential business disasters.  Simply, what is said, is not what is heard not what is done.  And, finally, one prominent venture capitalist mentioned that adding “technology into the communications often makes it worse.”

This is part of a presentation at the Digital Meetings Sympo/Expo and can be customized for executive presentations, email for details.

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