CIOs can get their seat at the table by building a new table.

Seat at the Table

At many companies, the CIO isn't invited to join other top level executives to take a seat at the leadership table. There are a variety of reasons why this happens, and sometimes, it can be changed.

When I first joined my former employer, Hub International, in 2006 as the CIO of their northeast company (Hub Northeast), I invested a lot of time meeting with key stakeholders (fellow C-Suites and presidents of the divisions). I learned that, historically, the IT department's primary focus had been on maintaining uptime, providing good customer service, and participating in acquisitions. The stakeholders felt that the IT department had its own point-of-view on what it should be working on.  I immediately saw the opportunity to align IT more closely with the business and increase the value my department could provide.

It was also true at this company that the CIO position had never had a seat at the table. When I brought this up with my boss, the CFO, he explained that the company's structure mirrored that of our parent holding company, a model that operating companies were asked to follow. While I understood the constraint, I felt that we, as an IT organization, could deliver far greater value if we were a close partner to all of the business leaders and had a voice at the meetings.

Building a New Table

I proposed creating an IT Steering Committee to the CFO.  My pitch described its value: business and IT leadership would work hand-in-hand identifying how IT can help the company achieve its goals and objectives, validating that we're working on the right things at the right time, and providing updates and greater transparency on key strategic initiatives. 

“A new table has been created, and not only did I have a seat, I was sitting at the head of it!”

To be most effective, the right people had to be on the committee, so I proposed that it be made up of fellow C-suite leaders and presidents of the divisions.

Once he was comfortable with the idea, I pitched it to the other business leaders individually. My proposal to each was simple, "If we sit at the same table and work together, I'll understand firsthand how we (IT) can help you to achieve your goals."  I shared the charter and gave each business leader the opportunity to modify it. This ensured that the steering committee would be on the right track from its initial launch, and it gave each executive an ownership stake in it.

Each leader cast visible support and now there was tremendous momentum.  The steering committee was formed with me as its chairman.

We met quarterly. From the feedback I received, the steering committee increased the value and alignment of IT, and it improved the business and IT relationship.  I also gained the valuable information I needed to architect a new IT Strategic Plan. And because it was built by working collaboratively, hand-in-hand with my fellow business leaders, the plan was fully supported and funded.

When I formally presented the IT Strategic Plan to the CEO, he commented on a pie chart that showed figures on growth, gaining efficiencies and cutting costs, concluding that "we're investing in the right areas and in the right proportions." He also said he intended to use the chart in discussion with other executives.

Expanding Based on Earned Trust

As time progressed, I felt that I had become more of a trusted advisor to the business. So, I decided to take a risk. I shifted the steering committee meetings to have a greater strategic business emphasis. During our summer planning cycles, I introduced and facilitated business discussions (growing in existing markets, targeting new markets, competitive intelligence, expanding our value proposition, etc.). Since this was new territory, I first shared my proposed material with the CEO and CFO.  They confirmed that the right topics were chosen to facilitate and provided their support.

The initial focus of the steering committee had been purely IT.  Then it evolved and became the body for discussing business and IT strategies, along with planning and implementation. A new table has been created, and not only did I have a seat, I was sitting at the head of it!

During my tenure, my role changed.  I became the CIO for several operating companies, reporting in to a president at the parent holding company. He knew of my work with the Northeast steering committee and the value it delivered, and he asked me to create a similar model for each of the operating companies in my charge.

Advice for Creating Your Seat at the Table

I've heard from colleagues of similar situations where they weren't at the table.  I'm the first to say that I had luck on my side - I reported into an amazing CFO, had a supportive CEO, and great stakeholders.      

My advice for any CIOs looking to affect positive change, whether it's a seat at the table, or to create a new table, is to go back to the basics:

  • Invest in face time and in building relationships.
  • Immerse yourself in all aspects of the business.  Understand their operations, learn their language, identify low hanging fruit and begin to formulate ideas on how IT could add new value. 
  • Clearly define and articulate value. 
  • Tailor the message for each stakeholder.  Speak in their language, from their point of view, and show them "what’s in it for them."

  • Share ownership.  It provides for a better solution and helps earn stakeholder buy-in.

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