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Why CIOs Need Executive Peers

Frank Petersmark | February 10, 2014

By Frank Petersmark

The life of an insurance company CIO can be a lonely one.  In many companies the job is less understood than any other executive position, the results are more scrutinized than for any other executive position, and to top it off, nothing is ever really ‘done’ in the same sense as they are ‘done’ for other executive positions. 

Insurer CIOs yearn to find executive peers who understand what they do, why they do it, and how they do it.  Gold is finding a good listener with the ability to provide critical yet constructive feedback and perspectives,

If the executive staffs of most insurers were placed in a police lineup and people plucked off the street were asked to identify the one executive that does not look like he or she fits with the others, the CIO would stick out like a production outage.

There are many reasons for this, including the relative immaturity of the CIO position in the executive ranks and the general lack of understanding of what the CIO does in many companies.  But is there some other deeper-seated reason for the CIO as the outlier on most executive staffs?

This is not to imply that CIOs are ineffective leaders and executives in their companies or that they lack the executive vision and gravitas to get strategic things done. Many insurer CIOs clearly can do all of that and more. 

But most CIOs lack the one thing inside their company that nearly everybody else on the executive staff has: – an executive peer. Webster’s defines peer as: one that is of equal standing with another: equal; especially: one belonging to the same societal group especially based on age, grade, or status.

The first part of the definition—one that is of equal standing with another—is the case for many CIOs, at least as they appear on the corporate organizational chart.  So far so good. 

However, the second part of the definition is a bit more problematic.  Executive staffs are nothing if not their own special kinds of societal groups, and in that society age, grade, and status matter.  All of those elements result from a sense of shared experiences and shared understandings of what each other does. That’s where trust, credibility, and even empathy come from in the executive ranks.  And that gets to the heart of the problem: In this modern corporate scenario there is no executive peer for the CIO. 

So what’s the big deal?  So what if CIOs don’t have executive peers in their organizations. How could that possibly impact their ability to succeed in their role as the business technology leader of their organization?    Let’s count the ways. 

  1.  Being an executive is a team sport.  To be an effective part of an executive team, or any team, it’s important that all the team members understand the strengths, weaknesses, and overall capabilities of each other.  That way team members can be put in positions that leverage their strengths, and where possible, avoid scenarios that expose their weaknesses. This kind of team dynamic only occurs if team members have the context and shared experiences that enable them to understand the decision-making perspectives of their peers.  In the case of the CIO, that shared perspective doesn’t exist.     
  2. Understanding leads to trust.  The more you understand what another team member has to grapple with to effectively do their job, the more you begin to trust that what they’re doing serves the common corporate good.  Conversely, the less you understand about what an executive team member is grappling with, the less confident, and trusting, you are that they are pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team.  This is a long-time quandary of CIOs, in as much as what CIOs do, and what they are required to understand from a technology perspective to do their jobs, is often well beyond the realm of understanding of the rest of the executive team.   
  3. Transparency leads to empathy.  IT gets a bad rap in many companies as being the dark hole where investment dollars go to die.  When the CIO asks his or her peers to pony up several millions of dollars for some business technology need, he or she has created an expectation that there will be a full and continuous accounting of how that money is being used.  Similarly, when the CIO brings the annual budget to the table it helps if his or her executive peers actually understand what’s in that budget.  Neither of these areas are traditional strengths of CIOs.  Fair or not, it is often incumbent on the CIO to make the effort required to insure that his or her executive peers fully understand how every dollar invested in IT is used, and fully understand the returns generated by those invested dollars over time.  That is the level of transparency necessary to create and maintain executive empathy, so that the next time the CIO needs some leeway on investments or expenses, it’s not a knock-down drag-out confrontation.

 

Individually all of these items are correctable.  Taken together though, they all add up to an executive disadvantage for many CIOs, akin to not having a home-field advantage as in the world of sports.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the average tenure of CIOs is shorter than for any other executive position.  Or perhaps that is one of the reasons there seems to be so many conferences focused on facilitating CIO networking, as misery does love company.  

Believe it or not CIOs are people too, and the sense of security and confidence that goes along with feeling that you belong on the team is an important element of CIO success over the long term.  When this is lacking, as it often is, the CIO’s job becomes that much more difficult.

So the question becomes what to do about this?  Is there some way for CIOs to develop the kind of executive peer relationships that say CFOs and COOs have with each other? 

I’m afraid in the short term the answer is no, or at least there’s not much that CIOs can do about this.  The executive position of CIO is still a relatively young one in the context of insurer organizational charts, and it will take more time for CIOs and their potential peers to create a common organizational understanding, and appreciation, for what CIOs have to deal with. 

All is not lost, however.  There are some CIOs who have crossed the organizational chasm and landed in executive business positions, although interestingly you rarely hear of an executive business leader that crosses the chasm the other way and becomes a CIO.  The implication is that there are some organizations that have a broader and deeper understanding of what CIOs do, and recognize that business and technology acumen should be key components of any executive position.

The reality, though, is there are still not enough organizations that work hard enough at the executive level to create the kind of environment necessary for their CIO to develop true peer relationships with their executive counterparts.  This takes time, patience, persistence, and above all willingness on the part of both CIOs and their fellow executives to reach across the chasm and grab each other’s hand.   

(Formerly CIO at Amerisure, Frank Petersmark is CIO Advocate at X by 2, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based technology company specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. He can be reached at Fpetersmark@xby2.com


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