Why would a CEO hire a CIO, anyway?

My friend and colleague Mike Benz – a talented CIO himself – answered this question in a recent LinkedIn post, providing ten reasons it’s a good idea.

But with all due deference to someone who knows the subject well … and someone I hope is still my friend after reading what follows … I think Mike’s asking the wrong question.

From the perspective of most CEOs, “CIO” and “the poor, sorry zhlub I hired to run IT” are synonyms, so their answer to “Why hire a chief information officer?” is, “Well, someone has to run IT, and I sure don’t want to do it.”

Which leads to this week’s question: What, if anything, is the difference between “CIO” and “Poor, sorry zhlub”?

You can find one answer in the Management Compass, which I introduced way back in 1997. As you can see from the diagram, CIOs lead and manage in four directions: North, to the company’s top executives, east, to their peers in other parts of the business, west, to those who make use of IT’s services (no, not “internal customers”!), and south, to IT’s employees.

As a general rule, poor, sorry zhlubs focus most of their leadership time and energy on IT’s employees and making sure IT takes care of its service recipients … southwest on the compass, that is.

They focus on delivery.

CIOs, as an equally general rule, face nor’east more often than not. In doing so they can, if they aren’t careful, put their southwesterly priorities at risk through inattention.

Poor, sorry zhlubs, also known as IT directors, do their best to make sure IT gets the job done. But it can be the CIOs, who pay more attention to their peer and executive relationships, who get IT the respect and resources it needs to get the job done.

And while they’re at it the CIOs in this admittedly simplistic portrayal enjoy more career success than their southwest-oriented brethren – something you’d expect for folks who cultivate their skills at managing up.

The obvious resolution to the dueling IT leads conundrum is for whoever sits in the head-of-IT chair to consciously and deliberately pay attention to all four compass points.

In addition to being obvious, this solution has the added benefit of being right.

But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?). The catch is the head of IT’s comfort zone. “Yes,” you can imagine a southwesterly IT director saying. “I know I should be building and maintaining all of these relationships. But the executive leadership team alone has a half-dozen members, and they’re all busy without giving me time for relationship-building. And my calendar is already full before I try to schedule these meetings.”

Which is to say that with all due respect to Star Trek, space isn’t the final frontier. That honor belongs to time.

Bob’s last word: And one more thing. In theory, or at least in a lot of what you’re likely to read about such things, CIOs, in contrast to their IT director brethren, are strategic thinkers and bring their strategic thinking to the executive suite.

Me too. There’s No Such Thing as an IT Project includes clear guidance that IT ought to be leading company strategy.

But then there’s the guidance provided in an earlier book, Keep the Joint Running. It points out that before IT gets to be strategic, it first has to be competent.

CIOs, that is, might be better at sitting at the strategy table, but wearing their IT director hat might be what gets them there.

Now playing on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide: 4 hard truths of multivendor outsourcing.

You say you want to be a CIO, but the CIO you report to isn’t going anywhere?

You say you’re tired of big-corporation politics, but being good at big corporation politics is the most important skill you have?

You say the only difference between you and God is that when God created the world, he/she/it/they didn’t have a pre-existing universe to have to integrate Earth into?

Is that what’s troubling you, Bunky?

If so, you might consider moving from where you are to become the IT department of an ultra-small business.

Not IT’s head. The IT department – just you.

Being IT for a small organization can be rewarding. Not financially, but if you’re looking for appreciation of what IT does, small is a better bet than big.

But it isn’t an unmixed blessing – there are some gotchas for you to look out for should you become small-business IT. Some examples:

Politics: Most small organizations are either family businesses or extensions of their CEO – their personality, biases, areas of expertise, and blind spots.

Or both.

If it’s a family business, politics and family politics are the same. Your influence would be limited both genetically and by the basic good sense that tells most of us to stay out of another family’s business.

If it’s a CEO-centric organization, persuasion depends entirely on the CEO’s personality. Evidence and logic might work. Or, it might be even less effective than when trying to persuade a big-company governance committee.

Often, that is, IT governance means sucking up to the CEO.

This might or might not be an improvement.

The Cloud: Large enterprise IT has a whole department to keep IT’s platforms and infrastructure running. As one-person IT it’s just you. If you don’t move everything you can to the cloud, weekends and vacations will be vicarious.

But beware: In most situations, moving IT stuff to the cloud will call for a bigger IT budget, reducing your popularity – see “Politics,” above. Not to mention the increased vulnerability to network outages that comes with the cloud territory.

Excel-based application integration: When business users need to combine data from multiple applications, big-company IT creates custom views that combine them.

One-person IT can provide Excel extracts from each of the applications, and help users figure out how to create unified views from those extracts.

Not to mention what they can accomplish if they master mail merge.

In big companies, helping end-users achieve IT proficiency is a good investment. When you’re the entire company’s IT, it’s essential.

Outsourcing: Even very large organizations have been known to outsource part or all of the IT function. Whether it’s a good idea or not, it can work.

In a small business, outsourcing IT is just another way to increase IT staffing, something the CEO isn’t likely to want. Don’t even try suggesting it.

Instead, build what we genarians call a Rolodex – of contractors competent to fix something if it breaks. That’s contractors, not outsourcers. The difference? You only pay contractors when you need them.

What shouldn’t be a difference is that, outsourcer or contractor, you must pay them to familiarize themselves with whatever it is they should be ready to support.

Mobility: In a big business, career-minded employees want promotions. In the absence of promotions they’ll want lateral transfers that put them in a better position to receive a future promotion.

A small-business one-person IT organization, in contrast, has nowhere to be promoted to. You can put yourself in a position to move laterally to a position in business management should another manager leave, but that doesn’t happen all that often.

Depending on how long you want your work week to be, you can take on non-IT responsibilities along with your one-person-IT-department role.

The good mobility news about the bad news is that if the company you support does well, it will grow. As it does, business growth can put you in a position to hire a few additional IT staff.

Documentation: No, it isn’t any fun, but even beyond helping your successor survive you can count on forgetting how you did something and why. So every time you do anything, document it. You’ll thank yourself when the future shows up and you have to fiddle with stuff you did a few years back and don’t remember any of it.

Bob’s last word: Being a one-person IT department can be a lot of fun, assuming you find IT a lot of fun … and if you don’t, why on earth aren’t you finding something you like better to do?

And in case you’re wondering, yes, once, in my notorious past, one-quarter of my job was being one-person IT.

The best part.

Now on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:7 ways CIOs get themselves fired.” What it’s about: Keeping your job as CIO is tough, even when you do everything right. Here are seven ways unwary CIOs make their jobs even riskier.