CXO Lessons Learned: Do CIOs face a glass ceiling?

Government CIOs gain more influence but are not seen as strategic decision-makers

What’s on the minds of CIOs?

Chief information officers named having good employees as their top concern in the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM) 2007 CIO Challenges Survey.

  • Hiring and retaining skilled professionals. Since the survey started in 1998, workforce issues have been one of the top five challenges of CIOs.

  • Aligning information technology with organizational mission goals. Good alignment is another challenge that usually makes it into the top five.

  • Obtaining adequate funding for IT programs and projects. This perennial top-five challenge is tied with another concern — using IT to improve service — that showed the single largest year-to-year jump in the rankings.

  • Building effective relationships with agency senior executives. This concern has hit the top five twice in the past three surveys, which shows its increasing importance to CIOs.

The biggest single drop, from No. 2 in 2002 and 2001 to No. 20 in 2007 on CIOs’ list of concerns, was making business and cultural changes necessary for e-government transformation. That’s probably because e-government is no longer seen as a special initiative but as part of IT infrastructure, AFFIRM said.

— Brian Robinson

If you threw a stone into a room of chief information officers, you would more than likely hit a happy CIO, or at least that’s what they would say. 

“Most people would say they are happy with being a CIO, because for many, it’s the pinnacle of their careers in government,” said Richard Westfield, CIO at the National Labor Relations Board and co-chairman of the Small Agency CIO Council.

But that is not to say you’ll never hear a CIO grousing about the job or wanting to go to the next level in a career that has a ceiling in many organizations.

“Plain and simple, it’s a tough job,” Westfield said. “They are tasked with reinventing government [and] using fast-changing technologies in a federal environment that was never designed for speed and agility.”

Many public CIOs would like to lead transformational changes, but they are finding that harder to accomplish than CIOs who work in the private sector. Procurement and workforce are two of the biggest problem areas for public CIOs, Westfield said. It’s hard to hire the best people and harder to get rid of poor performers. And even in the best of circumstances, procurement regulations are complicated.

“When you are truly trying to transform government, it can be very frustrating at times to make things happen,” Westfield said.

How many times have you heard that CIOs haven’t earned full recognition as strategic decision-makers? Although the current crop of federal CIOs has more responsibilities than its predecessors enjoyed, they are still mostly operational rather than strategic decision-makers, organizational experts say.

As leaders, CIOs are focused on immediate concerns, such as funding and project management, rather than on preparing the agency to meet strategic challenges.

Some observers outside government say  major institutional changes would have to occur before federal CIOs can have the influence that many of them aspire to. However, others say the CIOs who develop their leadership skills can overcome those institutional barriers and achieve the job satisfaction they are seeking.

“Project management, enterprise architecture and the like are important, and [they] may be building a foundation for the future, but [they’re] all lower-level kind of stuff,” said Frank McDonough, former deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Information Technology Policy.
IT has become a routine part of government, McDonough said, but it hasn’t transformed government the way people thought it would. He said one reason is that Congress doesn’t want that to happen.

“There’s a crying need for horizontal management [of IT] across the government, to get it out of the stovepipes,” McDonough said, “but Congress likes lots of chairmanships.”

A leadership void exists in government that CIOs could fill, he added, but it would require them to pass the infrastructure work to a chief technology officer and rethink their positions.

“As hard as it is, they have to try to pick themselves off the floor, reread Clinger-Cohen and refocus on the original intent of the bill,” McDonough said, referring to legislation that created the CIO position in federal agencies. “The fact is that a lot of what was intended in Clinger-Cohen hasn’t been achieved.”

That will require CIOs with talent, a thick skin, intimate knowledge of the agency and its culture, and a vision of what is possible, McDonough said. “Unfortunately,” he added, “not a lot of people have that.”
Unlike CIOs in government, many private-sector CIOs are finding they have what it takes to break through the glass ceiling. A survey of company CIOs published last year by the IBM CIO Leadership Forum found that 84 percent of the respondents t hought that IT was significantly and profoundly transforming their industries. And most saw themselves at the forefront of that change.

Even so, only 16 percent of those CIOs said they believed their companies were taking full advantage of IT’s potential. Forging stronger relationships with chief executive officers and other C-level executives would help change that, according to the IBM survey results.

There are signs that that might be happening, said Harvey Koeppel, executive director of IBM’s Center for CIO Leadership.

“More recent research shows that more and more CIOs feel they do have the seat at the table and that the challenge now is how to leverage that early enough in the [decision-making] process,” Koeppel said.
There is one big difference between public and private-sector CIOs, said Ellen Kitzis, a member of Gartner’s global leadership team and author of the book “The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results.”

“Government CIOs tend to be focused on budgets and processes versus strategies,” Kitzis said. “They spend a huge amount of time devoted to budgets and the consensus needed for that, and consequently, [they] tend to focus on the current state of things rather than the future state.”

Think strategically
Defense Department agencies are exceptions, Kitzis said. People in those agencies tend to think strategically about the future and the technologies they need to meet future needs. However, most federal agencies use IT to administer current policies rather than to prepare their agencies for the future, she said.

“If agencies continue to see their roles as simply funding programs, then they need to change their business model before the CIO role can evolve,” Kitzis said. “The agency model has to mature before the CIO role can.”

Some federal CIOs say that changes happening now will lead to roles of greater influence in the future.

“CIOs really do have an opportunity to contribute to innovation in their organizations, but [first] they have to reorient their focus to solving perceived business problems,” said Michael Carleton, CIO at the Health and Human Services Department.

A large part of that department’s energy is devoted to funding grants and understanding what grantees do and how the funds are spent, Carleton said. If CIOs want to influence the evolution of government to the degree they feel they can, they need to fully understand the business processes within their departments and agencies, he said.

That’s true across the board, even for the CIOs of smaller agencies, Carleton said. The operational side of government tends to consume more of their energy, simply because they have fewer staff members, he said. However, they still must have a strategic vision, even if it encompasses a narrower set of issues and priorities than it would in large agencies.

Frequently, the only way federal CIOs get business people to listen to them is by showing that they have a complete understanding of the business processes that keep the agencies running, Westfield said. “Otherwise, they’ll just look at me as some guy with a wrench.”

A need for agencies to collaborate and share information with other organizations will define the leadership skills and competencies that future CIOs must have, some experts say.

“As we move forward and the power of technology increases, the skill set of the CIO will be based more around such things as decision-making, collaboration, team-based leadership and so on,” said Robert Carey, the Navy’s CIO.

Another essential CIO skill will be expertise in managing change, Carey said. As agencies face the growing demands of an Internet-savvy generation, CIOs know their jobs will become more comple

“All the skill sets of a leader will be needed, along with the abilities for team-based organization and collaboration,” Carey said. “We’ll have to be able to sing in a key that the younger people get.”

CIOs must also learn how to bond with people in other areas of the organization, such as those in acquisition positions, Carey said, adding, “that’s an area that is ripe for change.”

One question is how and whether most federal CIOs can develop into that kind of leader.

Kitzis said many private-sector CIOs advanced in their organizations because they knew the business processes intimately. They were also specifically selected and trained for the CIO position, she said.

In government, most CIOs are appointed because of mandates to fill the position. That practice leads to uneven acceptance of CIOs within agencies and to only an average level of competence, Kitzis said. Many of those CIOs are picked more for their technical competence than anything else, she added.

“Will those technical CIOs be able to make the transition?” she asked. “That was asked of the technical CIOs in the private sector five to 10 years ago, and not all of them made it.” 


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