CIO Dinner Sound Bites - Great conversations at the top

Times of great turbulence open doors for those who are able and willing to lead. In 2009, we reported on a set of interviews with CIOs that had moved beyond mere cost-cutting rationale and were ready to bond with their C-level colleagues to address the strategic challenges that lay ahead. In follow-up CIO dinners, we aim to explore the issues and opportunities further. The CIO Dinner Sound Bites series provides a peek into what was brought to the table.

The crisis that hit the world in 2008 might have helped the resourceful CIO get a foot in the door to the C-suite, but how does he keep his foot there – or, better, how might he get invited in? The first three CIO dinners, organised in the second half of 2010, aimed at sharing experiences on the nature of the conversations that lead to great bonding at the top.

Room for Bonding

“Once a CIO loses leadership over the non-discretionary part of the IT portfolio, he had better start looking for another job,” was one of the first lessons put forward. To be sure, one of the worst things that can happen to a CIO is systematically being second-guessed on his proposed budget to keep the lights on. Obviously, when all of the conversation bandwidth is being eaten up by discussions on keeping the business (of IT) running, none will be left to address growing – let alone transforming – the business.

There was broad agreement that the very notion of a relationship between a CIO and the C-suite hinges on the existence of a base level of trust bestowed upon the CIO by these colleagues. That base level of trust takes the form of being willing to entrust the CIO with decision-making power concerning the IT investments required to keep the business’ operational capabilities intact. It is this trust that frees up conversation bandwidth for bonding.

A subsequent discussion on trustworthiness was framed in one of the dinners with reference to the work of author and executive educator Charles Green. According to Green, trustworthy behaviour that enables people to connect emerges from individuals that consistently and genuinely act according to four principles: (a) a focus on the other, (b) a collaborative approach to relationships, (c) a medium- to long-term relationship perspective, and (d) a habit of being transparent in all of one’s dealings.

Many CIOs repeated what their colleague said in our 2009 research report: “[Y]ou simply cannot appear credible to your business partners if you do not have transparency in your costs.” They emphasised the importance of being able to make a cogent case for operational excellence to counter challenges to the way the IT department is run. Ideally, that case should allow the CIO to keep the conversation from getting side-tracked into the internal operations of the IT department, to establish credibility and reliability, and to move the conversation on to discretionary, strategic investments that benefit the organisation as a whole.

Ready to Lead

Great C-suite conversations always relate directly to the critical business agenda. Anyone who is able to bring valuable insights to the table has a shot at being heard. A CIO can do this – and thus be invited to join in – by carefully interlacing relevant ideas, insights and knowledge about the use of IT into these critical business conversations. The CIOs participating in our first CIO dinner agreed that a CIO with the ability to synthesise the role of IT and how it supports key business capabilities into the critical business conversations would truly be “strategizing IT.”

In principle, the more gently and naturally IT can be brought into strategic business conversations, the better. One CIO described how he has systematically picked up on his peers’ vocabularies to connect more easily with his colleagues in a conversation. Many CIOs stressed the importance of a true conversation leader’s ability to listen and understand what others are thinking and feeling. Indeed, those that balance an ability to inquire with an ability to advocate a position can stimulate a most effective conversation, as emphasised by management scholars Chris Argyris, Donald Schön and Peter Senge. Combining these abilities also significantly increases the chances of co-owned IT decision-making at the top, which is necessary to secure commitment during decision implementation. A participant summarised his view on the matter as follows: “I am not presenting my IT strategy; we are discussing our business strategy.”

Throughout the 2010 CIO dinner series, ample time was spent on identifying communication that blocked great IT-related conversations in the C-suite. The number one killer turned out to be many a CIO’s need to elaborate at length about technological inventions like the Cloud, SOA or Web 2.0, rather than discuss business innovation with the aid of IT. One word of advice to the CIO is to resist being lured into cumbersome, detailed technical expert explanations. Another is to always maintain a clear and explicit link to the critical business agenda when addressing technological inventions. For that matter, if consistently framed this way, IT may actually become regarded as a source of strategic advantage.

This paper concludes the Autumn Series of the “CIO dinners”, proposed by Deloitte to CIOs to informally exchange on key topics in an intimate, exclusive setting. The dinners are hosted by Koen Vandaele and Christian Combes, Technology partners at Deloitte. Prof Stijn Viaene, of the Vlerick Business School, brings his insights during the dinners, in the context of the Vlerick Deloitte Research Chair.

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