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Getting and Keeping the Seat as
CIO at the Strategic Table

by Ken Kirsch and Robert Johnson

 
   
 
   

Getting and keeping a seat at your company’s strategic table is your path to greater influence, upward mobility and personal reputation.  By strategic table, we mean the table around which the CEO conducts weekly or monthly staff meetings and discusses the company’s top priorities and business issues.  At this table, you’ll be able to make a greater contribution to help your company achieve its objectives.  By having a seat and being a contributor, you and your department will be held in high regard by your executive peers and other colleagues. 

Without a seat, the reputation of the IT department is weaker than you want and, more importantly, the CEO must not think IT is of strategic importance to the company.  Even worse, the CEO must not think that you are a strategic thinker.  The result is that you will get second-hand information on the company’s top priorities, key initiatives, all of which will hinder your ability to bring greater value to your entire organization. 

One way of getting and keeping a seat at the table is to strengthen your skills and expertise pertinent not only to your specific business unit but to the company at large.  It may require you to make a major shift in your perspective or approach.  For example, you may be highly knowledgeable on technology issues but usually speak in technical terms.  This gives the impression that you don’t understand the business and creates confusion among your more business-oriented colleagues.  Most of your colleagues won’t admit they don’t understand you.  Over time, they’ll simply stop listening to you.  

Before you can pursue a seat at the table, IT’s house must be in order.  Key systems must be reliable and performing well.  If problems arise and IT is perceived at difficult to work with, you must address this and in a highly visible way to show that you’re committed to bring value to your organization.   

We believe the following are necessary or foundational attributes a CIO must possess to get a seat at his company’s strategic table:

  • Know your business inside and out and be able to cite in simple straightforward terms key company metrics.  Can IT contribute to improving these metrics?  If so, how?

  • Be a strategic thinker (understand the “30,000 foot” view).  How can IT serve as a differentiator for your organization and enable you to win new business?

  • Be an effective communicator, particularly using business terms.  Are you comfortable with terms such as revenue growth, time to market, market share, product life cycle and return on investment?  If not, find a way to get comfortable with them!

  • Be a team player and collaborator.  Make yourself available. Are your business colleagues asking you for help with new initiatives, such as bringing a new product line to market? 

  • Have a sense of humor and always be upbeat.  You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian but you can’t be too serious either. 

These attributes shouldn’t be difficult to acquire, it just takes extra effort.  Ask questions of executive and other colleagues and take lots of notes.  Follow news about your company, industry and key competitors.  Consider attending a pertinent university-based executive education program.  If you don’t have a mentor, get one, particularly someone with more business experience than you, preferably outside of your company.  Your mentor can be a great source of advice as well as a sounding board to help you enhance your skills and value proposition.

There are a couple of additional attributes we believe will accelerate your efforts.  Identify initiatives to help grow revenue, the top priority of most companies right now.  For example, a mid-sized manufacturer of specialty tools is evolving its customer portal into an e-commerce website to add incremental revenue and enhance customer service.   This same company is electronically capturing the in-depth knowledge of their highly skilled toolmakers which is being incorporated into new fee-based services.   Anyone with a sharp hatchet can cut costs; few can really grow revenues during difficult economic times.

What are you doing to identify emerging technologies that will significantly disrupt your industry and company?  Look at what Apple’s iTunes model for purchasing single songs versus entire albums on CD’s has done to the music business!  It’s very likely that your business colleagues are not aware of or are tracking such disruptive technologies. 

What are you doing to help your boss achieve his or her objectives and look good?  Consider volunteering for special projects or assignments.  Bring solid, well thought out ideas regarding how IT can help the business grow and prosper to your boss.

If you report to the CFO, COO or CAO, don’t assume that because he has a seat, you won’t get one.  CIO’s at forward thinking companies, particularly those that rely on their technology infrastructure to achieve competitive advantage, often sit on the company’s executive committee.  Some, according a recent Harvard Business Review article by Nolan and McFarlan, even serve on an IT Committee of the Board.  If your organization isn’t as forward thinking as your sector leader, you’re still relying heavily on technology and more is coming, not less.  It’s your job to help your colleagues to understand what it does and can do to grow your business, better service customers, enter new markets, etc.  

To get a seat at the table, you must be invited by the CEO.  This is a party you cannot “crash”.  If you don’t report to the CEO, see if you can get your boss the help get you the invitation.  It could improve his status in the organization by the additional value you provide. 

Bottom line: you must continuously add value to the meeting, to the CEO and to other team members both to gain and to keep your seat at the strategic table!

Footnote: Richard Nolan and F. Warren McFarlan, “Information Technology and the Board of Directors”, Harvard Business Review October, 2005.


       
   
 
       
   

The Authors

Ken Kirsch

 

Robert Johnson

Ken Kirsch is Managing Partner, Lake Rudd Capital Partners , a private equity investment and advisory firm, and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business Administration.  Previously, he was a senior executive at GTECH Corporation and CEO of Network Six, a NASDAQ-listed IT services company.  Ken has a PhD from Northwestern University and serves on the Advisory Committee of its McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Robert Johnson is Director of Product Marketing at Atrion Networking Corporation where he’s responsible for market analysis, developing new products and co-leading the company’s managed services business line. Robert is a veteran of the IT industry having held executive strategy and marketing positions with CGI Inc., Deloitte Consulting and Digital Equipment Corp. Contact him at www.atrion.net .

 
       
   
 
       
   
Many more articles in The CIO Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives
 
       
   
 
       
   
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Copyright 2011 by Ken Kirsch and Robert Johnson. All rights reserved.

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