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Blurred business lines: Should CIOs still ‘own’ IT?

Kenny MacIver — June 2014
One of the world’s top headhunters, Martha Heller, on why both ownership and accountability for technology projects need to be shared between IT and the business.

“There is one issue that today torments and frustrates IT leaders more than any other,” declares Martha Heller, head of CIO headhunter group Heller Search Associates and a confidante to many of the world’s top CIOs. And that is the paradoxical relationship between the accountability for IT and ownership of IT.

“When I talk about IT projects at conferences, CIOs will always interrupt me, saying: ‘We don't have any IT projects at my company, we have only business projects. They happen to have an IT component, but they’re business projects,’” she outlines in our exclusive video.

But what they don’t always mention is the downside. When Heller’s firm gets a call from a CEO’s office seeking to replace a CIO who has “failed,” it always enquires about what went wrong. The response? Something like: “The ERP project went south... the CRM deployment didn’t go well... our big mobility play failed.”

That raises an obvious contradiction: if these are indeed business projects and not technology projects, then why is the CIO the one getting fired?

“There were two kinds of projects: business successes and IT failures.”

There is a clear misalignment here, Heller argues. “The business and not the CIO is supposed to own these projects, yet the CIO is held accountable for their success, even though they have little or no influence over the community that’s supposed to own the project. That puts the CIO between a rock and a hard place, and that is not an enviable position for any executive,” she highlights. As one CIO quoted in Heller’s book, The CIO Paradox, says, “There were two kinds of projects: business successes and IT failures.”

So how do CIOs resolve that conundrum? The formal, proper approach, in Heller’s view, is to apply robust governance: “Ensure you have a great structure that assigns decision-making rights about IT investments, as well as the roles and responsibilities toward the execution of those IT investments.”
Death knell for CIO careers

But that is not a realistic expectation. The attribute that CIOs actually need to bring to the accountability versus ownership paradox, says Heller, is audacity, having the courage to reach beyond their specific technology domain and get the CEO and their executive peers to support them to drive transformation, whether or not you’ve been anointed to do so.

That is no small challenge, as she points out. “Getting the business to do their part in deploying IT projects is like pushing a rope. So for CIOs to be able to operationalize their uniquely horizontal view [of the organization] and solve that accountability versus ownership paradox they have to have leadership and courage and alliance-building skills.”

Without those, she observes as someone working closely with the careers outlook of many IT leaders, that paradox can “sound the death knell for a large population of CIOs.”
First published
June 2014
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About: Martha Heller
As president of Heller Search Associates, Martha Heller leads a group dedicated to placing transformational IT leaders with some of the world’s top companies. She is the author of ‘The CIO Paradox: Battling the contradictions of IT leadership.’

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