The CIO Paradox: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 3rd, 2013 by bobmorris

CIO ParadoxThe CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership
Martha Heller
bibliomotion (2013)

The CIO “for all seasons”

Rather than one paradox, as this book’s title suggests, Martha Heller rigorously and eloquently examines several separate but related paradoxes: Cost versus Innovation, Operations versus Strategy, Futurist versus Archivist, IT and Business Paradox, Accountability versus Ownership, Recruiting, Enterprise Architecture, Successor, Corporate Board, CIO Career Path, and Future of the CIO Role. What’s the problem? Actually, there are dozens and most result from a flaw in a management mindset, what is generally referred to as “zero sum thinking.” It is sometimes expressed as “Either/Or.” In essence, it asserts mutual-exclusivity. For example, consider these dimensions of the CIO’s role:

o Hired to be strategic but spends most time and energy on operations
o Charged to be a steward of risk mitigation and cost containment, yet expected to innovate
o Viewed as a service provider, yet expected to be a business driver
o IT can make or break a company but a CIO rarely sits on a board.

You get the idea. And note the resemblance to what had once been paradoxes of the CFO. Years ago, my late and cherished friend, Jeremy Hope, wrote Reinventing the CFO: How Financial Managers Can Transform Their Roles and Add Greater Value (Harvard Business Review Press, 2006). What he tried to do for CFOs and their companies is what Heller is trying to do for CIOs and their companies. Resolving various paradoxes by reinventing the CIO is in the best-interests of current and aspiring CIOs, of course, but also in the best interests of stakeholders, the given organization, its industry, and — yes — the global economy.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Heller’s coverage.

o Develop a Really Effective Metaphor, and, Keep It Simple (6-13)
o Build a Culture of Innovation (5-20)
o Structure Your Organization for Strategy (25-29)
o Six Global Paradoxes (42-51)
o Learn to Sell Legacy Improvements (59-62)
o Tighten Your Connection to the Business (66-70)
o Revisit Some Communication Basics (75-79)
o Strengthen the Business Skills of Your Team (85-90)
o Don’t Mistake Governance for Shared Accountability (101-105)
o Lead the Business (108-111)
o Full Support from the Top: The Perfect Search (123-125)
o Breaking Down the Enterprise Architecture (EA) Paradox (127-130)

Comment: In my opinion, the best source for additional guidance with this immensely important task can be found in Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, co-authored by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David C. Robertson, published by Harvard Business Review Press (2006).

o Find the Right Talent (133-138)
o The Challenges of CIO Succession, and, Identify a Successor for Tomorrow, Not Today (142-148)
o The Case for CIO Board Appointments (166-170)
o From CIO to CEO (185-190)

So, how to reinvent the CIO? How to win the battle to resolve the contradictions of IT leadership? Heller suggests 17 specific initiatives. Here’s my take on five:

o Be a chameleon: develop a mindset and skills that resemble a Swiss Army knife
o Develop blended executives with cross-functional expertise
o Excel at recruiting by identifying talent constantly even if hiring only occasionally
o Get rid of the context: stop labeling and stereotyping based on someone’s prior experience
o Lead change (especially innovation) rather than be reactive

When concluding her brilliant book, Martha Heller observes, “To me, the CIO role is simply fascinating. It is rife with so many contradictions that I cannot imagine how anyone could ever be successful in it. And yet, I meet them every day. Yes, the CIO Paradox exists and breaking it is as hard as it can be. But the CIOs who do it – or who come very close – have a view of business, technology, customers, markets, and human behavior that is beyond the scope of any other executive. If you can get past the Paradox, chances are, you are in for a good time.”

My own opinion is that (a) all current or aspiring CIOs will find invaluable the information, insights, and counsel provided in this volume and (b) they –individually or in collaboration – will help to achieve the transformation, indeed the reinvention of the CIO role.

Indeed, all residents of the C-Suite must be or become leaders and managers “for all seasons” in months and years to come. Paradoxes are inevitable, especially in complex, stressful situations. They are eventually resolved but others develop. At this point, my only suggestions are, first, to develop what Carol Dweck characterizes as a “growth mindset,” and then to follow Oscar Wilde’s advice: ”Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

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