More CIOs are being asked to take on responsibilities outside of IT. Expanding your job description can be good for your career, provided you master the politics and rethink how you run IT.

Among the entire management team at Best Western International, Scott Gibson has the longest title. Sure, there’s a tendency toward wordiness when it comes to describing positions at the hotelier. Look at the nameplate on Ric Leutwyler’s door: Senior Vice President of Brand Quality and Member Service.

But the extra ink required to print Gibson’s latest batch of business cards goes beyond verbosity. The 47-year-old technology executive, who joined the company in 2005 as CIO and senior vice president of distribution, last summer added a third title: Senior vice president of strategic services. That means Gibson heads up the IT organisation and the call centre operations team, where he oversees all methods of distribution from call centres to travel agents to online travel sites, and he is in charge of corporate strategic planning. For the record, that makes him CIO and senior vice president, distribution and strategic services.

While that drawn-out descriptor may make him unique among his Best Western peers, Gibson’s hardly singular when judged against the CIO cohort. More than half of CIOs report having responsibilities outside of IT, according to a survey of 1500 CIOs by Gartner Executive Programmes.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of IT leaders are accepting official positions that extend beyond the traditional technology function. (See interview with Wayne Champion, who is CIO, CFO and GM facilities and support services at the West Coast District Health Board). “We’ve seen enough of it going on that we can say it really is a trend,” says Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester Research.

It’s what Martha Heller, managing director of the IT leadership practice at executive search firm ZRG, calls the “CIO-and” phenomenon. The new CIO-plus roles are more substantial than hyphenate titles of old like CIO and vice president of e-business. Today, notes Heller, “the add-on titles are typically more strategic, enterprise-wide and often customer-facing.”

That seems like good news. CIOs have been so successful that their bosses are betting they’ll add value outside of IT — an affirmation, if there ever was one, of the business value of an IT leader. And CIOs in these magnified roles are better positioned to deliver improved processes and business results than if they held only the technology position. “CIOs have a greater ability to influence their firms’ direction—process, strategy, business models—when they have more of a role on the business side,” says Cameron.

But a hybrid role has its downside. It requires infinitely more from the IT leader — and the IT staff, who have to take on more responsibility as their bosses’ workload compounds. If you think you’ve got your hands full with just IT, well, forget it. What’s more, having a dual role can breed resentment outside IT as CIOs encroach on others’ turf. Yet some experts say these hybrid roles are a necessary outgrowth of the increasingly business-focused CIO role. “The natural evolution is to have the topmost role of the senior technology executive become a general management role, not a technology role,” says Cameron. “As a result, it is normal for [today’s] CIO to pick up additional responsibilities that require the same style of general management discipline.”

Hyphenates are hot again

There is precedent for the CIO-plus role. In the 1990s, you couldn’t throw a rock in IT leadership circles without hitting someone with e-commerce-this or digital-that tacked on to his title. But the trend subsided when the dotcom bubble burst. Other title enhancements have tended to be industry-specific or related to how a particular company uses IT. In software companies, there’s the ever-present CIO-CTO hyphenate. Manufacturing companies have been known to add supply chain duties to the CIO position.

But the expanded CIO role of today is different experts say. IT executives are taking on corporate strategy, heading up revenue-producing business units, as well as taking on roles as varied as logistics and international expansion. According to the 2007/2008 CIO Survey by Harvey Nash US, 44 per cent of respondents reported having responsibilities outside of IT. “The kind of stuff CIOs are good at — consistency, predictability, an organised approach to problem solving — can be a unique skill set in many companies,” says Cameron.

The phenomenon is familiar to Al Etterman. When he took a job at software company OpenWave in 2002, he recounts, “I started as CIO, but I picked up a couple of other pieces along the way.” He ended up in charge of a corporate programme office, real estate and facilities. “I kind of forgot to duck,” he says, half-joking. When JDS Uniphase (JDSU), a Californian-based manufacturer of communications test and measurement solutions and optical products, hired Etterman in 2004, the new job encompassed not only the CIO role but also the position of SVP of customer advocacy. He added chief administrative officer to his portfolio a year later.

Most of the time, additional titles are bestowed after success with an IT initiative. When Tom Coleman became CIO of plumbing products manufacturer Sloan Valve Company in 2000, he was concerned that the company wasn’t getting enough out of its SAP software. “I had experience with business process reengineering so I started talking to my boss, the CEO, about the fact that unless the software were connected to business process improvement, the system was worthless,” Coleman recalls. As a result, business process improvement became one of the top corporate initiatives. Coleman became, in addition to CIO, the chief process officer.

For all the talk about the unique qualities a CIO can bring to an additional enterprise role, IT isn’t the only function that can offer its expertise more broadly. Finance, for example, has an impact on every part of the business, too. Yet it’s rare to see the CFO tackling anything other than his executive fiduciary responsibilities.

It may be that CIOs — still viewed by some as the ugly stepchildren of the C-suite — remain eager to prove their worth and are more willing to take on additional duties. “The CIO can end up doing strategic jobs that are core to business success and dependent on IT, or the CIO may get invited to do onerous tasks that they wouldn’t want to put on their resume,” says Forrester’s Cameron. When asked if CIOs who take on extra roles are being exploited, JDSU’s Etterman is matter-of-fact: “You probably are being taken advantage of.” But Etterman, who describes himself as a “fixer,” doesn’t mind as long as it’s an area where he can add something to the role and take something new from it for himself.

CIOs are likely to view being tapped for additional responsibility as a vote of confidence. “[These roles] validate IT as being a true strategic enabler rather than a support function,” says Gordon of Harvey Nash.

Still, it’s not a decision to be made flippantly (see sidebar article “Topping up your CIO role — the pros and cons”) .That decision caused Best Western’s Gibson to toss and turn more than a few nights before adding a third responsibility. “I know a couple of CIOs who have evolved into COO and CEO roles, so I guess it was clear to me that it was possible to succeed outside of technology,” says Gibson. But he had never worked outside of IT. “I probably came into it with more trepidation than anyone else.”

The upside of multiple roles

The unknowns of an extra-IT role can be a thrill. “It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s different every hour of the day,” says JDSU’s Etterman. “I can go from a real estate negotiations meeting to an Oracle conversation about SOA and Web 2.0 to compensation discussions to a board meeting.”

The potential benefits to the CIO — and the company — can’t be denied. Dual-role CIOs stay around longer, says Forrester’s Cameron. “There’s a much more obvious connection from them to the business because they’re more instrumental in driving improvements in the company.”

Indeed, CIOs who have taken on additional business are better positioned to deliver improved processes and business results. “I am both the customer and provider of a solution. There are people on my team that are using technology to generate revenue, and there are people on my team who are delivering technology,” says Gibson. “Conflict [between IT and the business] has not gone away, but it’s isolated at my level.”

Most CIOs who take on another role don’t feel diminished by it. But for members of their staff, it can take time to adjust to the new reality. “It was confusing for my team initially,” Gibson says. “But now I think they feel like they’re co-equal members of my larger team. In this role, I can do a better job of having the business make clear what they want to pursue with technology; I can actually make the lives of IT people a little better.”

Individuals on the business side can take longer to come around. When Coleman arrived at Sloan Valve, he inherited an IT role previously filled by a dictatorial personality: “That had created a lot of resentment, so I had to be careful about coming across as all-knowing.” When he decided to take on additional responsibility outside of IT, he knew he had to tread even more gingerly. “In the early stages, a lot of people wondered what my real agenda was. They assumed I wanted to take over their department or become the next president of the company,” Coleman recalls. Coleman made it clear he had “zero interest” in running the show.

A CIO-plus future?

Gibson, whose CIO-plus role at Best Western marks his third C-level position, started out the way most CIOs used to — as a programmer. “But the longer I worked in businesses, the further and further I moved away from the nuts and bolts of technology,” he says. Gibson sees his position as head of IT, distribution and business strategy as just another advancement in his evolution. “It’s a natural progression,” he says. “People who find themselves in the business of being successful CIOs today are people who would be successful in other areas of the business outside of technology.”

Perhaps the majority of IT leaders fall into that category. But not everyone’s game for tackling the CIO role and something else, notes Cameron. The increase in CIOs doing double or triple duty in the business does have some in the IT community wondering — or worrying — about what this means for the standalone CIO role.

JDSU’s Etterman ultimately gave up straddling the CAO and CIO roles. Earlier this year he hired someone to take over his IT role full-time. “At a certain point, you look around and say, this is really stupid,” says Etterman. “The CIO role is big enough. You can figure out how to do a couple more things well. You can’t do much more without compromising the value you’re delivering to the IT organisation.”

JDSU’s CEO and board members reluctantly agreed. “There just wasn’t enough of me to go around,” says now executive vice president and CAO-only Etterman.

Forrester’s Cameron, for one, doesn’t think the CIO title is endangered. “The CIO title sticks,” he says. “There will always have to be someone in charge of technology.”

At Best Western, Gibson plans to keep the CIO title — and the other two. “There’s no danger I will turn them over to someone else anytime soon,” he says. “On the other hand, I don’t know that I’m so emotionally invested that I would be reluctant to do that in the future. I want to be valuable to this organisation in a way that works for this organisation.”

Sidebar: Topping up your CIO role – the pros and cons

Here are some questions to ask your boss — and yourself — before signing on for double duty in a CIO-plus role:

Will it change my position in the company? Find out if the job comes with more money, or with access to the board of directors or executive team. If the additional position does not enhance your standing within the organisation, “It may be an indication that they’re just dumping something in your lap,” says Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester.

Michael Hites, an associate vice president of administrative IT services with the University of Illinois, adds that if you don’t know why you’re taking on the role — or if you weren’t involved either in creating the position or getting yourself selected for it — you probably should turn it down.

Do I want to move out of IT or just supplement my CIO role? Hites, in his previous job as CIO at New Mexico State University, was also in charge of the strategic planning process. “I already had experience working with people throughout the entire organisation, so taking on a university-wide planning role was a natural extension.”

Are my objectives clear? Make sure you understand how your success in the new role will be measured. You and key stakeholders should agree about what you’re expected to achieve, says Sam Gordon, CIO practice director with Harvey Nash Executive Search.

Is my IT organisation functioning well? If you’re midway through an enterprise software implementation that’s teetering on the brink of disaster, it’s probably not a good time to add something to your plate. Your IT house should be in order, advises Joe Drouin, VP and CIO for TRW Automotive.

Do I need to be the smartest guy in the room? In a non-IT role, a CIO may suddenly find he has got a lot to learn. Not being the expert may put you on the defensive, says Drouin. “You need to have the confidence necessary to cope with this.”

Am I happiest as the IT guy? “If you bleed IT and truly love the technology side, don’t take another role,” says Hites. “Your bias will be clear and it will keep you from succeeding.”

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags strategyCIO rolecareercustomer focusnew ciomultitasking

Show Comments