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Firms shouldn't be at war with their own technology
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Martha Heller, president of the Boston-based recruiting firm Heller Search Associates and author of "The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership," says executives need to be empowered to drive their firms' information technology systems to their full potential.

Explain the CIO Paradox.

For 13 years, I've been asking chief information officers a question. When you walked into your job, what did you find? The answer is always the same. "I inherited a mess. IT had no credibility with the business. Projects were overdue and overbudget. We had no project management discipline, governance or career paths, and the team had outdated skills." These problems result in the Paradox, a set of perennial contradictions that permeate the core of the CIO role. Some examples of this are:

• CIOs are hired to be strategic, but spend most of their time on operational issues.

• IT can make or break a company, but CIOs rarely sit on corporate boards.

• Technology is a long-term investment, but the company thinks in quarters.

Why is this the age of CIOs?

At the heart of the paradox is the tension between technology and business. CIOs are always looking for the right balance between the two in their strategies, relationships, organizations and in the leaders they develop. And these days — with new hardware choices and technology platforms, big data, and consumerization — IT is more about technology than it has been for decades. What this means is that the CIO Paradox is growing stronger. The contradictory forces that define IT are getting more acute, and CIOs will work harder than ever to perform. Those who can rise to the occasion will have a view of business, technology, customers and markets that is beyond the scope of any other executive. And they will enjoy career advancement, innovation and rewards the likes of which they have not yet seen.

How can IT executives start driving technology?

There are key behaviors CIOs need to focus on, but reshaping the relationship a CIO has with the rest of a company can greatly impact his or her power in driving technology. CIOs, having developed expertise in tough areas such as project management, continuous improvement and strategic planning, can step out of the IT box and benefit almost every other department. We see titles such as "CIO and VP of strategic planning" all the time. CIOs also need executives who can sit at the intersection between IT and its major customers and deliver. Appoint business-relationship executives, portfolio CIOs, by pulling them from the business or grooming them in IT. You know you're on the right track when you cannot easily distinguish the IT person from everyone else in a business unit meeting.

What are ways a CIO can sell long-term improvements?

A CIO needs to develop the ability to sell foundational improvements to the executive leadership team. Tom Murphy, CIO of AmerisourceBergen, found success by going visual. Rather than communicating through proposals and reports (and being met with skepticism and glazed-over eyeballs), he created maps to illustrate the reality of the technology environment and effectively sell his proposed improvements. "It moves the conversation from an emotional one to a fact-based one," he said. Certainly, a visual translator is both friendlier and more relatable to those outside IT.

Dawn House Martha Heller, author

CIOs need to be free to lead, author advises.
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