IT Leadership

Bridging the Gap between CEOs and CIOs

Too often, misunderstandings and communication gaps place unnecessary stress on the CEO – CIO relationship. Disparate agendas make it difficult to build strong IT and business coalitions. However, it is important for the CIO and CEO to develop a working relationship based on communication and shared goals. When these elements exist, both CEO and CIO can work together to steer technology spending, enable corporate agility, increase employee productivity, improve technology ROI, and focus on strategic initiatives that help the company reach its goals.

Order Taking: The Traditional CEO – CIO Relationship

Traditionally, CEOs relied on business unit leaders and CFOs to point them in the right direction when it came to the selection of business technology. It might be the CMO who selected marketing platforms or the Sales Director who led decision making on Customer Relationship Management platforms, for example. In these situations, CIOs functioned merely as order takers, implementing the strategies developed by other business unit heads and approved by the CFO.

In this traditional relationship model, CIOs were not included in strategy and planning sessions, and therefore lacked the context to align their technology agenda, and budget, with the organizational agenda. It was difficult to break down organizational barriers because leaders accepted these dynamics as “business as usual.” But confining the IT department to its own functional silo limited a CIO’s ability to help drive organizational success.

A Lack of Context Leads to a Frayed Relationship and Poor Results

A poor relationship between the CIO and CEO can be an ongoing, vicious cycle of misunderstanding and missed communication. When the CEO does not communicate direction openly or frequently with the CIO, the CIO is left to his or her own devices, operating without the benefit of input or feedback from the Chief Executive. When the CIO does not provide status of initiatives and operations to the CEO on a predictable cadence, this leaves the CEO to wonder just what the CIO is working on, or how technology provides real value to the company. Rather than communicating those concerns directly, the cycle continues in perpetuity.  

Leadership staff must recognize that this dynamic does little to benefit the organization. In order to allow CIOs to help define technology initiatives like speeding up products to market, enabling growth, reducing risk, and improving cost models, the nature of the CEO – CIO relationship must evolve.

Building a Strong CEO – CIO Relationship through Open Communication

The relationship between CEOs and CIOs in every company will be as unique as the individuals who work there. The dynamic will depend upon a number of factors, most importantly the company’s reliance on technology, the strategy of the business, and the organizational culture. Regardless of those factors, there are steps that executives can take to create a better working relationship between CEOs and CIOs. In order to shift to a dynamic based upon collaboration and trust, CIOs and CEOs need to meet specific needs for one another, including:

  • Clarity of strategy and business direction. It is difficult for CIOs to implement technology solutions that will drive the business if they are not clear on the organizational strategy and goals. Without that knowledge, IT initiatives often “start and stop” as budgets and corporate initiatives change. There must be clear communication of the company’s strategic direction for the CIO to execute technology strategy successfully.
  • Separating IT service delivery from IT strategy. Deployment and operations of networks, storage, and servers are typically not strategic initiatives; they are standard utilities and part of the cost of doing business. Judging a CIO’s effectiveness based on managing these utilities will keep the IT department pigeonholed as a cost center. CIOs are ultimately responsible for managing both service and strategy, however, CEOs need to be able to separate those two critical functions. CEOs must understand that in order to enact a strong IT strategy, they must invite and include the CIO in organizational strategy sessions, they must include the CIO in all technology selection exercises, and they must grant him or her the freedom to pursue new solutions.
  • Open communication regarding IT resources. In order to commit personnel and budgetary resources to technology, CEOs must be able to clearly see the value achieved. To that end, CIOs must communicate that value by clearly tying every proposal and every deployed technology service to a tangible corporate function, goal, or objectively quantifying the ways in which technology will positively impact the organization. This communication must take place not as a point in time presentation, but as an ongoing dialog, in order to match the pace of constant change in the enterprise.

To develop a strong working relationship between CIO and CEO, both parties must stop looking backwards and instead commit to a common goal: driving the success of the organization through an alignment of IT and business strategy. Both the CIO and the CEO share equal responsibility when it comes to making these changes. Through open communication and a commitment to reframing the relationship, CIOs and CEOs can work together to achieve more for their organizations.