The quest for technology leadership

The CIO is an essential piece of the puzzle.

Technological development has spawned a tremendous number of new business initiatives, business channels, even new business categories. Understandably, such rapid growth has sparked fierce competition among firms for top managerial talent. Today, technology can shape the fine line between market dominance and mere existence. In the pursuit of technological advantage over competitors, the presence of exceptional high-tech leaders is an absolutely critical factor.

Great leadership is often easy to recognize, but difficult to define, especially since the differences between leading and managing can be unclear. Management is, of course, essential to keeping the complicated system of people and technologies that is a company running smoothly. A technology manager focuses on day-to-day operational realities, including planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling and problem-solving. A manager also keeps an eye on the next one- to six-month horizon to ensure that present efforts are aimed in the right direction.

What is leadership?
Leadership, on the other hand, is the vision and strategy that establishes that direction in the first place and adapts it to ever changing market conditions and circumstances. Leadership looks ahead to define what the next two to five years should look like, aligns the right people with that vision and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles. Leadership is what creates the organization and establishes its place in the ongoing pursuit of competitive advantage.

Once firmly entrenched in the “back room,” technology leadership has leapt forward to the corner office and the boardroom table within the last decade. Though titles may vary slightly from one door plaque to the next, executive leadership roles in high-tech generally include director of IT, vice-president of IT and chief information officer (CIO). Whereas VPs and directors typically maintain a closer connection to activities in the server room or the software lab, the CIO tends to remain aloof from everyday operations and focuses on the global picture of how technology can bolster the bottom line.

The type of high-tech leadership required by an organization largely depends on the size and scope of its technology initiatives, and how important they are to the core success of the company and the industry as a whole. For many firms, technology is a service, a means to carry out essential daily tasks and make workers and processes more productive. For others, technology is more than an operational tool, it is a key business initiative. Firms that are looking to utilize technology in order to set the pace for their respective sectors are those that require high-tech vision and leadership at the executive level — particularly a CIO — to successfully meet this lofty goal.

Along with the chief financial officer (CFO) and chief operations officer (COO), the CIO is a business partner who works closely with the chief executive officer to run the organization today and develop it long term. The CIO does not necessarily report to the CEO, but instead acts as a key strategic advisor, working to build the firm’s position, market share and profit margin by leveraging the virtually limitless possibilities of technology. The CIO may focus on enhancing internal systems, or strengthening customer relationships, or both. Whatever the main area of concentration, the CIO is a voice in the technological direction of the company at the board level.

The cio search
Searching for an individual who can effectively lead the technological charge for the organization requires a sincere investment of time, effort and, yes, money. The usual four- to six-week high-tech recruitment-to-hire cycle can stretch up to eight or 10 weeks for a CIO. Base salary rates for Canadian CIOs range anywhere from $125,000 to $250,000. But what might seem like an enormous outlay now can yield extraordinary returns down the road. A great high-tech leader could implement technologies and strategies that heighten sales figures by millions of dollars.

To gain a complete a sense of what to look for in a CIO, begin by understanding fully who this individual is and what he or she will do for the organization. Technology executives should have a background in computer science or business — preferably both — and around 10 years of experience in the field, at least five of those at the executive level. In addition to a wealth of experience, a great CIO must possess a rare balance of technical acumen, keen business sense and proven leadership ability.

The executive leader must be able to:

•Understand all business processes;

•Participate actively in the technology planning process;

•Create a technology strategy for the company;

•Identify application development needs for all business units;

•Ensure that the IT infrastructure (computers, networks, etc.) are running at optimal levels;

•Make key decisions regarding outsourcing or in-house development of IT services;

•Establish strategic relationships with IT suppliers and consultants;

•Implement technologies that increase revenue and profitability;

•Interact with internal and external clients to ensure customer satisfaction; and

•Provide training to enable end-users to utilize all systems for maximum productivity.

An often-overlooked element of attracting top leadership talent is the amount of freedom and decision-making capability that will be placed in the hands of the new hire. Remember this individual is being brought in specifically for his or her managerial and leadership skills. Will the CIO be empowered to carry out major purchasing decisions? Make key hires? Promote team members? The role of CIO is far more entrepreneurial than most in the IT world.

A competitive compensation plan is indispensable to the process of hiring a high-tech leader. From signing bonuses to stock options, every aspect of the compensation package must be shaped to meet critical market demands. Over and above the typical six-figure base salary, there should be a bonus structure in place, usually with about 25 per cent based on corporate performance and the remaining 75 per cent on meeting individual objectives. Stock options are also important, since they represent ownership in the company and are taxed at a much lower rate than cash — an important consideration for those earning more than $125,000.

Though some CEOs may balk at the hefty price tag, try to avoid pre-establishing compensation figures before hiring. The best package includes whatever it takes to get the right person. The plan should always be viewed as an investment rather than an expense and its total should balance with the prospective rewards of getting the top candidate into the role.

Many organizations reach an impasse because they focus strictly on candidates who already hold the title of CIO — people who will seldom leave an existing position for anything less than the opportunity of a lifetime. Consider expanding the search to encompass vice-presidents of IT who possess the skills and experience needed and are prepared to leap to the next wrung of the career ladder.

When ready to interview for the CIO position, the CEO and other senior level executives must be available to meet and get to know the top candidates. Even the most impressive candidate on paper will do little to advance the organization if his or her personal and managerial goals do not mesh with the rest of the executive team. In fact, a good relationship with the CEO is perhaps the most important aspects of the CIO’s role.

Considering the impact a new CIO can have on the future direction and success of the organization, the quest for the right person is clearly a serious endeavour. It can also be extremely interesting, since preliminary discussions and interviews are far more focused on the exchange of views and philosophies than a review of tasks and at this level of leadership.

Dianne King is president of CNC Global, a leading Canadian information technology and e-commerce staffing firm. Dianne can be reached at [email protected].


The scoop on stock options
In a market where practically every industry is feeling the bite of skill shortages, hiring organizations are considering a multitude of creative tactics not only to attract the quality employees they need, but also to retain those they already have. The work world became particularly abuzz over the lure of high-tech stock options last year when dot.coms were sizzling. Though the boom has certainly quieted, it is not over and excitement about stock options still abounds.

Stock options can be an effective tool for companies to attract top talent to their doorstep and encourage employees to perform well. Makes sense, since those employees become part owners of the company and can impact the bottom line for their own advantage. Unfortunately, a false sense of the value of stock options sometimes prevails, particularly when job candidates make judgments about the part they play in a complete compensation package without a full understanding of what they are and how they work.

While the addition of stock options can certainly make a job offer look attractive, it is only one component of a complete compensation package. Those options may or may not translate to big dollars later on. So, a good base salary is by far the most important part of any compensation plan negotiation for the average employee, from junior level positions up through management. Stock options are not going to impact an employee’s life all that much in the short term. Good pay, health coverage and paid vacation will.

This scenario differs slightly for executives who typically earn a very high base salary and strongly influence the direction of the company. For these folks, stock options are favourable not only because they represent corporate ownership, but also because they are taxed at a lower rate than cash. As a general rule, the higher the compensation, the higher the ratio of non-cash to cash.

There is no magic balance of non-cash to cash compensation, but at the end of the day, retention is about addressing the needs of employees in the here and now. Everyone has his or her own unique set of priorities, but generally speaking, quality employees prefer to work for an organization that emphasizes individual development, open communication, superior management and a great working environment.

Source: CNC Global

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!