Being a Business-Savvy CIO


By Larry Bonfante

For years, the debate over whether a CIO needs to be a business person or a technologist has raged on. My opinion has always been the same: A CIO should be first and foremost a business person, not a technologist.

I find it somewhat odd that CIOs are the only members of the C-suite who get involved in this type of conversation. You don't hear a lot about the CFO or CMO being asked to be business people because by definition anyone with a "C" in their title must be business focused. Why are CIOs any different? We shouldn't be.

I've heard a lot about what it means to be "business savvy." While an MBA is a wonderful credential to hold, I'm not convinced that this is a requirement for the job. I think the larger issue is the mindset with which you perform your role and the way you are engaged in your business.

Every dollar we invest (not "spend") at USTA is focused either on helping to drive new revenue, support the revenue engine, drive efficiencies or create more effective processes. We never spend money on technology for the sake of technology.

In other words: No ROI, no deal.

At the beginning of 2008 you didn't have to be Warren Buffett to know something significant (and bad) was happening in the economic climate. We proactively drove costs and headcount savings without being asked to do so by our management.

We did this because we are business people, and this is our business.

Some CIOs see themselves as being separate from the business in some way. They complain about having to explain why they need budget dollars. I'm not really sure what they are thinking!

If you don't feel like you're a part of the business, what are you doing about it? Are you engaging with your internal clients to understand their objectives and pressures? Are you focusing your plans to support their objectives? Are you meeting with them to learn more about their direction? Do you know what products and services your organization has in the pipeline and how you plan to expand your market reach? Do you have any dialogue with the ultimate consumers of your products and services?

One sure way to learn about the priorities of your business is to ask your business partners what they are being incented to accomplish. The best way to develop trust and partnership is to help your business clients accomplish their objectives and hit their metrics. That certainly creates good will.

Make sure that your objectives and the goals of your team are aligned with the mission of your enterprise and the objectives of your senior executives. If you find yourself spending a lot of time in areas that don't align with these goals, you need to ask yourself, why?

As a business person you know that you have limited assets, whether that means money or time. You should be prioritizing the use of these assets to align with what matters most for the business.

Taking from Voltaire, Jim Collins, in Good to Great, stated, "The good is the enemy of the great." There are lots of "good" things for you to invest your time and dollars in but only a handful of truly meaningful things that will make a difference for your business. Those are the areas you need to invest in.

Larry Bonfante is CIO of the United States Tennis Association. Read Larry's columns in CIO Insight here.


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