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The paradox that makes or breaks CIOs

Kenny MacIver — June 2014
The US’s highest profile CIO headhunter, Martha Heller, on how IT leaders battle with a unique set of challenges.

Why is the CIO’s profession tainted by so much failure? Why is the tenure of CIOs shorter than that of other CXOs; why do newly appointed CIOs invariably inherit a dysfunctional organization from their predecessors; and why are CIOs measured on just a fraction of their responsibilities and achievements?

These are just some of the questions Martha Heller has been wrestling with for more than a decade. As the president of CIO headhunter group, Heller Search Associates, which places CIOs with some of the world’s largest companies, she has an insider’s perspective on what makes and breaks the careers of IT leaders. And, as she outlines in our exclusive video, she believes the answers lie in a series of professional paradoxes, a set of often conflicting and contradictory challenges that makes the position of the CIO distinct from that of other executives.

“How can it be that 99% of CIOs taking on a new role say they inherit a mess: an IT budget out of control, an absence of project management discipline, an IT organization estranged from the business, and more?” she observes. Those incoming CIOs then spend three years or so trying to fix those issues, then they are gone because of perceived failure and the patterns are repeated, she explains. “So why is it that these smart, well-trained, talented leaders are failing over and over and over again?”
Archivist versus futurist

Above all, it comes down to what Heller calls the archivist versus futurist paradox. “CIOs are tasked with being focused on the future: how the technology marketplace is changing; how the business’s customers are changing; and how the talent pool is changing. Of course, CIOs are not alone in that. Heads of marketing, heads of sales and CEOs are all focused on the future,” she says.

“However, unlike the CIO those executives are not tethered by the past. They’re not chained by decisions made about their function 15 years before they even joined the company. The head of sales, for example, does not really care all that much about how products and services were sold 15 years ago. In contrast, the CIO cannot be so cavalier about the past because he or she is dragging years of underinvestment in technology while trying to stay focused on the future.”


It’s not unlike an iceberg, says Heller. The 10% to 20% of the IT budget that is focused on newer technologies is the visible top of the iceberg and that’s what business executives get excited about and clamor for. Today, that might contain technologies such as predictive analytics, consumer technologies, and mobility and tablet apps.

“But lurking below sea level is the rest of the infrastructure. It’s the 90% or 80% of the IT spend that has suffered from years of underinvestment. It’s insecure, it’s bloated, it’s loosely integrated and it’s expensive, and nobody [in the management team] can see that but the CIO.”
Solving the paradox

Whether it realizes the situation or not, that archivist versus futurist paradox is a major challenge for every company and CIOs have to figure out a way to overcome the burden of the legacy infrastructure while also meeting the demands of “the tip of the iceberg.”

Heller points to two key skills they need in order to solve this problem. First, they actually need to understand technology. “These are questions not about KPIs and ROI, these are fundamentally architecture problems, questions about integration, judging the value of technologies that are coming down the pipe. CIOs who come purely out of the business do not have a hope of solving these architectural problems.”

The other key skill CIOs need to bring to the archivist versus futurist paradox is financial acumen. In order to have progressive discussions with other business executives about the daunting challenges of ‘the iceberg,’ she says, CIOs need to be able to frame the issues in a financial context and in the lingua franca of finance executives. “So more total cost of ownership than technology.”

As that suggests, the stakes are high for both CIO careers and business outlooks. As Heller argues, unless CIOs are successful in applying those skills “the bloated bottom of the iceberg will just get weightier and ultimately pull the whole thing under.”
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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