5 C-suite bridges every IT leader must build

IT leaders have known for years that having “a seat at the table” is essential to their success. Without insight into and influence over key organizational decisions and priorities, CIOs are disadvantaged when it comes to launching and supporting initiatives that will help the business thrive.

But these days, that seat at the table, where the CEO and other top executives define and map out business strategy, is no longer enough. Every business function is driven by technology today and most are asking for more of it. And because each business function has its own challenges and opportunities, a smart CIO needs to understand those differences — and to build individual relationships with the leaders of each of those functional areas, not just with the CEO or the C-suite as a group.

That’s especially true when functional areas outside IT routinely buy their own technology and hire their own technology professionals, says Irving Tyler, distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, and former CIO of Quaker Chemical and IMS Health. A recent Gartner survey found that 41% of employees outside IT are “business technologists” who spend at least part of their time working on technology.

Leaders of an organization’s various function areas tend to have differing needs and priorities. Marketing leaders may be eager to try out new technologies that make purchases easier for customers or help gather valuable data about them. Finance leaders may be most interested in automating processes to avoid hiring more people than needed. HR leaders may be mostly concerned with protecting employees’ personal data and ensuring that can’t-fail systems like payroll never go down.

“Across the table, the relationships are all different for me, and how I work with them and approach them and engage them is very different,” says Rose Chambers, CIO of Charlotte, N.C.-based fiber network company Segra. “One size does not fit all.”

To better collaborate with her C-suite colleagues, Chambers makes a point of meeting one-on-one either every week or every other week with each functional leader even if there’s no pressing issue or project to discuss.

“I make sure that I understand what’s going on in their space, and that they understand what’s going on in my space as well,” she says. “You have to make sure you’re building those relationships, even when you don’t need them, because waiting to build them until you need them is not a great starting point.”

Here are some of the most important relationships for CIOs to build, how those relationships differ from one another, and what each of these functional leaders is likely to care about most.

Chief marketing officer

Kashif Naqshbandi, CMO at London-based tech talent recruitment and training company Tenth Revolution Group, meets about once a month with Tenth Revolution CIO Mark Hill. “There is a significant amount of crossover between our areas. Certainly, marketing is more technology-focused than it was,” Naqshbandi says.

This close relationship helps Naqshbandi get buy-in from the rest of leadership for new technology initiatives, he says. “Any sort of technology investment I’m thinking about, from day one I bring Mark in because I need to have him on board first,” he says. “And then, basically, we get the other C-suite members to agree that this is a worthwhile investment.”

That sort of joint sponsorship and common understanding of business goals is paramount, Naqshbandi adds. “Being CIO isn’t just about making sure the emails work. It’s working together on what the long-term picture is, and what the technology stack in the future looks like.”

In Tenth Revolution’s case, it also means upgrading systems to serve a new and more demanding market segment. The company once focused on small-to-midsize businesses. “Now, we have quite a large footprint with enterprise customers,” Naqshbandi says. “We have to align on the systems, processes, and go-to-market that gets us more of that type of customer. That requires agreement on vision, strategy, and needs, and how we’re going to get there,” he says. “We can’t do that without having an IT partner who’s fully bought into it.”

Chief financial officer

In a recent survey by financial software company Coupa, 33% of CFOs said they felt more tension with CIOs than with any other leader at their company.

What’s the source of all that tension? One explanation could be recent changes in the economy, says Tony Tiscornia, Coupa’s CFO.

“I think CIOs, their charter is to arm the business with the best technology for running the business over the long term and creating growth,” he says. “I think, in the near term, CFOs are really cranking down on budgets. When interest rates were very, very low and money was almost free, things were all about growth. Now we’re in a place where CFOs are often forcing the business and CIOs to make tradeoffs. If you want to bring in this new solution, you’ve got to cut one other one.”

However, CFOs still want to invest in automation, he says. “Automation is going to be a lot less expensive than hiring new people, training them, having turnover, etc.,” he says. “Maybe potentially having a layoff because you end up having too many people.”

And, he says, despite the need to limit costs during these high-interest times, CFOs don’t want to stifle innovation. “I want CIOs to know it’s not all about the bottom line,” he says. “CFOs care dearly about the top line as well.”

Chief human resources officer

With marketing leaders, the biggest challenge may be to manage the ever-growing number of new tools that users want or have already obtained, Chambers says. “Conversely, with my HR leader, I’m more actively going to her and saying, ‘Hey, there are things I believe we can do for you.’”

HR executives tend to be more cautious than other functional leaders when it comes to trying out new technologies, and for good reasons. First, they’re dealing with employees’ sensitive personal data that absolutely must be carefully protected. And second, they work with systems that must not go down, no matter what. Users might be very annoyed if, say, an important procurement fails to go through. But that’s nothing compared to how they’ll react if their paychecks don’t arrive on time.

Daragh Mahon, CIO at logistics company Werner Enterprises, was highly aware of both these issues when he joined the company about three years ago. One of his first projects was to carry out a planned migration from a mainframe-based system to Workday. “I think there’s a level of sensitivity about data in general in any organization, but it’s amped up when you’re talking about HR data,” he says.

The second difference between HR and other areas is that there’s a higher level of empathy for employees, he says. Of course, IT’s job in general is to “make employees’ life easier so they can focus on doing their jobs versus focusing on the technology,” he says. “But when you work with an HR leader, there’s a level of empathy for the employee that might not exist in other roles. I think an HR leader automatically brings that to the table. So it’s really thinking about the employee experience, which can have a massive influence on employee satisfaction.”

Chief operating officer

While a COO is often simply the No. 2 executive after the CEO, he or she may also oversee a company’s operations. And operations technology (OT) has evolved quite a lot in the past few years. Operations devices were once completely disconnected from the rest of the company’s systems — and sometimes separated by an “air gap.” They were often antiquated as well.

But OT has changed significantly, blending quite often with IT. “That separation existed because when we bought operational technology, even though it generated information, it sat there on its own,” Tyler says. “Now that equipment has been replaced with increasingly smart things, and suddenly people have discovered that the data that piece of equipment produces can give us another source of insight. And so, the CIO gets involved, increasingly, in those kinds of things.”

At internet infrastructure company Segra, “Operations is not only doing our service delivery and provisioning our customers, they’re also doing all our proactive monitoring of the network and responding to trouble tickets,” Chambers says. “They are one of my biggest customers and they’re managing that heartbeat of the business.”

Where sales and marketing are eager to try the newest technology, operations teams can be a bit more skeptical when presented with new tools, she adds. “The change curve for them is pretty steep, and the scenarios they deal with are fairly complex. So they’re a little more cautious when it comes to change.” But once they decide to adopt a new technology, she says, they will put in the effort that change requires. “They are willing to go through that change journey with you because we’re usually solving something that’s a pain point for them.”

At this writing, Chambers and her team are about to launch a ServiceNow deployment to replace Segra’s trouble ticketing and workflow platforms. Both the software and the integrator who will help with the deployment were selected in a joint process involving both operations and IT. Some 20 users from different functions within operations were invited to view the demos and give their input, Chambers says. At the demos, vendors were required to simulate several specific processes that Segra employees must actually go through as part of their jobs.

“The fact that we asked everybody to follow the same blueprint really helped them sort through the noise and look at the platform,” she says.

It also created a lot of buy-in. “The users never had been brought into a process like that,” she says. “That was really well received and contributed to strengthening that partnership.”

Operations users have a lot of pressures and responsibilities, she adds, and switching to a new system will inevitably add to that workload, at least initially. But because they participated in the selection process, most seem to be enthusiastic about it. “We kick off officially with the integrator next week, and there’s a lot of buzz and excitement,” she says.

Chief risk officer, chief information security officer, general counsel

Depending on your organization, overseeing cybersecurity, compliance, and risk may fall to a different functional leader. But whoever it is, it’s always great to have an ally when it comes to safeguarding data and protecting your network from intruders. That’s especially important in these days of cloud-first systems and software, when departments outside IT often buy cloud-based products directly from vendors, and don’t always understand the security issues that might arise as a result.

Sometimes, they’re not even aware that they are making a technology purchase, says Bryan Lewis, CIO of the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. “If I’m buying a technology system, I know I need to fill out the correct cybersecurity information,” he says. “If I’m buying services from a consultant, then it gets a lot more cloudy because there’s no real visibility at procurement as to what’s under the covers.”

That can be dangerous because third-party consultants may gain access to the university’s data on its 21,000 students. “The data agreements are really, really cloudy,” Lewis says. “So if they’re parsing or collecting data on potential students or current students, it doesn’t matter that they’re collecting the data. We are still liable for that because it’s our data.”

Navigating these issues requires finesse. “I’ve seen it happen where basically we’re unable to sign contracts for six months because there’s so much vetting of what’s going to be done where, and it slows down the whole process, and no work gets done,” Lewis says. “On the other side of it, I’ve seen departments basically circumvent the vetting process completely. And then there’s this tacit acknowledgement that there is no agreement in place with Vendor X, and they’re processing student data, and somebody’s got to deal with that at some point.”

Happily for him, he says, Lewis has no hand in establishing cybersecurity policies. That’s done by the CISO for the university as a whole, who reports to the university’s CIO. Lewis works closely with the CISO, though, both because of his role as McIntire’s CIO, and because he’s also a faculty member who teaches cybersecurity. “I talk to the CISO virtually every week, a lot of it on practical matters or class matters,” he says. “But every month, he coordinates all of us across the university to talk about policy and any new federal and state requirements that we’re going to be responsible for implementing.”

When it comes to hardening security, “it’s very important for someone like me to try to dialogue about the bigger picture,” he says. What keeps him up at night, though, is that without strong relationships, those conversations might never happen.

“We collect data on the lifecycle of our students from when they’re in high school to when they’re a 90-year-old alum,” he says. “That actually crosses five, six, seven different departments. And so it’s necessary to keep the dialogue at a higher level, to make sure we’re not just seeing the tree, but the forest of how we’re using this data.”

C-Suite, CIO, IT Leadership