Building powerful C-level relationships

Gartner Australasia Pty Ltd

By Marcus Darbyshire*
Wednesday, 03 July, 2013


Building powerful C-level relationships

CIOs have a unique perspective across the entire organisation and an opportunity, if not a mandate, to play a leading role in supporting executive team decision-making. To be effective, however, CIOs must understand that each executive views business slightly differently based on his or her current role and past experiences.

Understanding the C-suite’s mental models, including risk appetite and strategic mindset, helps CIOs to build powerful executive relationships and effective IT and business outcomes.

CEOs are typically outward-facing, evangelising, big-picture-oriented leaders who focus on future results. CIOs are more detailed and present-oriented in their thoughts, less comfortable with ambiguity and prefer operating in their sphere of control, rather than their sphere of influence. According to Gartner analysts, the trick for CIOs is not to lose the detail, but to become ‘bilingual’ - able to switch between IT and business leadership issues and styles.

CFOs and CIOs have many similarities. They act as stewards of critical enterprise assets and both roles usually attract people with conservative approaches. A Gartner study found the CFO was viewed as the most conservative senior executive and the CIO viewed as more conservative than many other C-level executives. The CFO’s focus is around managing cashflow and investments while achieving regulatory compliance. CIOs often focus on IT service and project delivery, improving business processes and demonstrating the business value of IT.

Questions from C-level executives during IT steering committees such as “Why is IT so expensive?” and “Are these savings projections real?” can limit the value of these meetings and reinforce a tactical view of IT. As in ancient Zen Buddhist texts, when “unuseful” questions are asked, the CIO must “unask” the questions. Leading CIOs have created sets of questions or discussion guides to help their CEOs, boards and other C-level executives focus on strategic value in their discussions about IT.

Gartner research shows that all C-Level-CIO relationships range from arm’s-length transactional relationships to close partnerships. Four types typically exist:

  • At risk: Where the CIO delivers below C-Level expectations.
  • Transactional: Where the CIO is focused on running the business, rather than growing or transforming it.
  • Partnering: Where the CIO has credibility, engages the CxOs on business issues and leads some business initiatives.
  • Trusted ally: Where the CIO behaves as, and is viewed as, a true business leader, leading significant proportions of the business. This is still relatively rare.

If you have the CIO role now or in your sights, make time to take three or four concrete steps towards better executive relationships. Delegate running of the ‘IT shop’, book regular meetings with key executives and adapt your style between focusing on the future and the present, the big picture and the details. These are critical skills for the successful CIO.

*Marcus Darbyshire is an executive partner in Gartner Executive Programs. He performs the roles of advisor, coach and partner to C-level executives, helping them gain the insights necessary to make the decisions that deliver exceptional business results while building their leadership capabilities. He advises IT executives across both the private and public sectors on topics including: the business value of IT, cost containment, IT governance, IT strategy, portfolio management, cloud computing and BYOD.

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