The CIO’s first order of business

The CIO’s first order of business

Before you can be influential you need to be seen as fundamentally competent, writes Owen McCall.

After months of preparation and work across the organisation, today was the day that I would discuss the proposed IT strategy with the chief executive. It wasn’t the first time we had talked about what our IT strategic direction should be or how IT would support and enable the business but this was the first time that all this thinking was in one document for a full discussion. The team had done a great job pulling all this work together and I was both excited and a little nervous about the conversation to come.

The time came and I walked into his office. His first words to me were not “Hello, Owen, how’s things?” No, his first words were “Why are there no sales reports today?” My heart sunk. This represented two problems. Firstly, retailers live by the daily sales and margin reports in much the same way that people say an army marches on its stomach and secondly, I was not aware that there had been a problem with the sales reports. If I was I would have gotten in first with an update on why and what we were doing about it.

Over the next hour or so (it seemed much longer) our discussion was focused on why there were no sales reports and how I and my team were so incompetent that we couldn’t produce something as critical and simple as sales reports. We barely mentioned the IT strategy, which was probably just as well as he wasn’t in a listening mood.

As I left the meeting I was gutted. I went back to my desk and contemplated the injustice of it all, or perhaps more accurately I felt sorry for myself. It wasn’t too long though before I began to move to action.

Firstly, let’s deal with the urgent. What had happened to the sales reports, when could we expect them to be distributed and how come I didn’t know as I was meant to be alerted of all P1s (high priority system faults/incidents)? As it happens I had decided reports were not critical as they don’t stop trading or our global supply chain. I changed that decision!

The sales reports were delivered just after lunch along with an explanation of why it happened and what we were changing so it wouldn’t happen again. Now I began to reflect on the implications of the morning. As time went by I realised that this meeting was symbolic of one of the most important lessons I ever learnt as a CIO.

Before you can be influential you need to be seen as fundamentally competent.

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Professionally, my goal has always been to use technology to add value to the organisations I have worked for or consulted to. Over the years I had learnt that to add real and significant value requires two things.

You have to be strategically relevant, that is, you have to understand your business and the issues your peers are dealing with on a daily basis. This is particularly so where the issues relate to the customers and markets you serve and how your organisation differentiates itself to compete in these markets.

You have to be influential with your peers so that when you talk knowledgeably about how IT can deliver value to the business or how IT was altering the competitive landscape, they listen.

I had no hope of being influential at that meeting with my CEO because in his mind, at that moment, I was seen as being incompetent.

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So it was stuck in my mind, as a CIO the first order of business is to be competent. For a CIO, core competence means:

1. The organisation’s systems are reliable and run when needed and when the users expect them to run;

2. We deliver projects on budget, within a reasonable time frame and with the functionality and user experience that is expected;

3. We are a prudent and effective steward of the organisation’s resources particularly cash.

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When you do these things well, people begin to acknowledge that you are competent and worth listening to. If you add fantastic customer experience to this core competence, then you begin to create advocates. Advocates are gold because not only do they say great things about you but they trust you, listen to you, and are open to influence.

This is where true partnership begins and through partnering with your peers comes the real and tangible opportunity to create value.

Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting and a member of CIO New Zealand’s editorial advisory board. He can be reached through and through his blog at

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