Build a More Strategic CIO

build a more strategic CIO

3 Keys to a More Strategic CIO

In 2002, I wrote, “Why Technologists Must Learn To Speak Business.” It was my first I.T. career article and resulted in a column, a number of additional writing projects, and ultimately my first book and my current book, “Building Your I.T. Career.”

It also resulted in both fan mail and hate mail. There were some who acted like I was attacking I.T. professionals because I suggested that I.T. had blackened the eye of business during the dotcom craze.

I said they needed to understand why they were NOT being viewed with the same adoration as they had been. I also suggested that their careers would be better served by adopting a business-first language and mindset.

Please understand: I am NOT a theorist pontificating from the outside. I am, and have been, for 20+ years, an I.T. professional. (but not really… see below) I use technology, application development, networking and infrastructure, tools, etc. to help my clients better run their businesses. I’ve been an application developer, a network integrator, a project manager, and a CIO. I have trained countless I.T. professionals. I protest from within!

Fast-forward 12 years! New book, new articles, same message.

CIO’s, CTO’s, and other technology executives complain that they are NOT invited into the executive boardroom. They are not given a “seat at the table.” And so I am going to offer 3 pieces of advice to help you become a more strategic I.T. executive. Or if you are hiring or developing a CIO, some advice to help them become more strategic. It’s isn’t the only pieces but it is a good start!

  1. Recognize that you are NOT in I.T.
    I have something like an allergic reaction to being referred to as a “tech guru” or “I.T. Pro”. I’m not! My title has been and continues to be, a “Business Solutions Specialist” and technology is ONE of the many tools I use to devise and deliver those solutions.

    Gush about the business.. and the departments/users and how much easier their jobs will be. When the CEO or departmental managers eyes glaze over, you know you’ve lost them.

    Note that I wrote the above in ALL CAPS! It is rare that a business owner/executive really cares about your tools or your technology. If they want that details – there is the occasional executive geek – make them draw it out of you!

  3. Try Departmental Immersion
    Both you and your team should spend some time, in and with the users, observing what they do and how they do it. You’ll discover that your great software is NOT as nearly intuitive as you thought. They aren’t stupid users.. they are the purpose, not the problem. If several users struggle with the same thing, it’s a design and/or training issue. Fix it!!

    You learn a lot about what you do, what the business does, and what users do, when you live in their world.

    The biggest complaint/concern I hear when I discuss this is that there isn’t enough time. But apparently, there is enough time to have to redesign solutions and provide extra training or field extra helpdesk calls? Hmm..

    Departmental Immersion pays dividends in time and in better understanding of the business. You create better solutions out of the gate when that happens. You become more strategic and more proactive in what you deliver to the departments and users.

I’m going to emphasize this with a story from a client a few years ago. This is something I posted in a discussion on a LinkedIn Group for CIO’s and I.T. executives. In particular, someone had suggested that the business and business leadership needed to understand I.T. better too. Nice thought but I’m not sure I agree with that.



While I agree that there is a two way street, the challenge is that business leaders are wary of I.T. that is largely tool-driven rather than concept-driven.

The analogy I use is if you hire a contractor to build a room addition, you would find it disconcerting if he showed up and started talking about the tools he uses, how great those tools are, the cost of the those tools, etc.

I’m lousy at home improvement and quite frankly, the tools have a vague interest to me. I want to know if he can see my vision and even add to it. Can he say, “you know, a bay window here would look great and add a lot due to the way the sun would hit it during the day.”

I served as the Virtual-CIO for a home builder in Phoenix for 2 years. I started just to consult them on a system wide upgrade and vendor selection. After a couple months, the founder approached me and invited me to their “seamless team” meeting; a monthly meeting of all the business managers for the company.

After the first meeting he and I talked again and he told me, “You are the first I.T. professional I’ve felt like I could invite to those meetings.”

I told him, “That’s because I’m NOT an I.T. professional. I’m a business professional and technology is just ONE of the tools I use.”

In the end, most business leaders DO NOT care about the technology. The CIO must learn to couch his language AND HIS THINKING into business first. Technology happens with his team but is almost NEVER helpful in the executive boardroom.

For I.T. to be invited into that boardroom, they need to speak to the business about the business.

Tell how amazing my room addition will be and then deliver it. I know you used tools but I don’t care much about them.. And don’t leave them lying around the yard.


Stop Discussing I.T. & The Business As Separate Entities

The reason I do not agree that “the business” or “executives” need to understand I.T. is that I don’t recognize a distinction between the two groups. There should not be a discussion about I.T. versus the business. I.T. is part of the business already.

The real question is whether I.T. speaks about the business in the same way the business speaks about the business. And by the way, this is true for any department. I promise, the CEO is not all that interested in the details of the latest sales program or how accounting is doing their day to day job. The CEO wants to know the sales numbers and cash flow and costs. Why should I.T. be any different.

If you want to be (or want to have) a more strategic CIO or I.T. department, stop being an I.T. professional! Just be a strategic professional!

Posted in Coaching, Leadership.


  1. Matthew, I could not agree more. Even though it is not always easy to apply, especially when you are a technical thinker, it is well worth the time and effort to engage with other business leaders and teams, spend time with them, and get their perspective on what is is that they ‘do’. Most of the time, it is a real eye-opener… 🙂

    • Cas… thanks for commenting.

      I often get some fairly aggressive push-back from the more “technically” focused IT practitioners. Sadly, this is 180 degrees opposite of what would best help them in their careers and help their organizations.

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