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Overlooked relationships CIOs should build within the C-suite

To lead transformation and meet business goals, CIOs must work with other C-level executives. With an ever-expanding C-suite, the possibilities for collaboration are endless.

Your success is going to depend on your ability to work with the rest of your organization's leadership.

As CIO, you need credibility with them to lead on technology strategies and you need to understand their strategies to make sure you are pointing IT in the right direction and providing sufficient staff and resources to key initiatives. However, the C-suite is an ever-expanding sea of acronyms, as different aspects of corporate operations rise to a sufficient level of importance to warrant a C-level leader. You'll need to understand some of the newer or overlooked roles you need to partner with.

Obvious relationships CIOs need to build

Before getting into roles that you might overlook, it's worth mentioning the obvious relationships.

If you're like most CIOs, you report to the chief executive officer (CEO) or the chief operating officer (COO). Building relationships with both of them is critical, regardless of which one you report to. In addition, the chief technology officer (CTO) is another person with whom you'll want to forge a strong relationship. Even though a CTO is often focused on client- or customer-facing technologies while you are focused on inward facing ones, those two worlds can and should reinforce one another rather than operate independently. Even if the company's CTO doesn't report to you, they are your most important C-level partner.

But what about overlooked C-suite partnerships? The following list highlights some of the most important potential partnerships you'll want to create.

Graphic depicting a common structure of the C-suite including the CEO at the top, with the CFO, CIO, CTO, COO and CMO comprising the second tier.

Security C-suite partners

As a CIO, upholding cybersecurity is critical to your role, particularly as cybersecurity problems increase exponentially. To do this, you'll need to partner with colleagues in the C-suite whose core job is security.

Chief security officer (CSO) and chief information security officer (CISO)

The two sets of responsibilities -- roughly, infrastructure and system security for the CSO and information security for the CISO -- overlap. Even if the CISO and CSO are different people, they should work in extremely close partnership, and you should work closely with both of them. That's because achieving enterprise goals through technology inevitably includes security risks. In addition, both the CSO and CISO are key to organizing the defenses against cybersecurity attacks and to mitigating any damage.

Two more potentially overlooked partnerships you'll want to forge are with the chief risk officer (CRO) and the chief compliance officer. You should regularly coordinate with the CRO, who will have a non-IT-centric perspective on reducing and managing overall corporate risk. And you'll want to work with the chief compliance officer, particularly as data privacy laws strengthen and grow.

Innovation and experience partners

With digital transformation top of mind for so many organizations, CIOs will need to align with those at the forefront of change. Successful partnerships with innovation-side colleagues will help you both support and lead digital acceleration.

Chief innovation officer (CINO) and chief digital officer (CDO)

Enterprise innovation typically focuses on employing new technologies and improving the applications of tech already in place through new processes or in new products or services. As CIO, you should be working closely with the CINO on identifying new ways of delivering business value with technology. In the era of digital transformation, many enterprises have rebranded the CINO as -- or replaced them with -- a chief digital officer (CDO).

Chief experience officer (CXO)

Innovative or significantly improved user experiences are central to many digital transformation projects and innovation initiatives, so you should be coordinating with the CXO.

C-suite relationships in data and knowledge

IT is in the grips of transformations driven by analytics and big data related to systems operations and cybersecurity. This means, as CIO, you need to develop productive relationships with colleagues working with data and analytics.

Chief data officer (another CDO) and chief analytics officer (CAO)

Both are increasingly common roles in the wake of the data science and big data revolution. Tools that use this data, such as AI and machine learning, are very technology intensive, making it impossible for the CDO and CAO to succeed without strong support from the CIO. Conversely, guidance from a CDO and CAO can make sure the cobbler's children don't have terrible shoes.

Chief knowledge officer (CKO)

This executive should have a similar, symmetrically beneficial relationship with you around the issues of knowledge management. Healthcare companies may also have a chief medical informatics officer, with whom your relationship will probably be more asymmetrical.

Business-side C-level relationships

Like any other job, much of your impact within the organization comes down to money. Given that reality, there's a big upside in fostering close ties with those involved with the business side of the C-suite.

Chief marketing officer (CMO)

Today's marketing relies heavily on technology, and partnering with the CMO can be win-win. Many CIOs fail to realize that the IT shops in large enterprises need to engage in more marketing, whether to cement user satisfaction with services already in place or to build acceptance for new technologies being rolled out. A relationship with the CMO can pave the way to becoming a more successful IT organization.

Chief revenue officer (CRO)

The CRO is driving many digital transformation initiatives focused on finding new ways to monetize existing assets, especially information assets. A close relationship with IT is often key to the CRO's success. You should cultivate the CRO as an advocate for investments in emerging technologies where there is a potential to boost existing revenue streams or to create entirely new ones.

Chief strategy officer (another CSO) and chief business development officer (CBDO)

IT needs to be involved in the early stages of new business strategic planning. As CIO, you can highlight ways IT can help execute on those strategies. You can also bring a realism to strategy and development goals. Making strong connections with these leaders is wise.

C-suite colleagues focused on the environment

Meeting climate action and sustainability goals is becoming increasingly important for organizations around the world. Aligning IT with climate action will enable more strategic adaptation to governmental policies and adoption of sustainable technologies.

Chief sustainability officer (yet another CSO) and chief green officer (CGO)

Reducing corporate impact on the environment often depends on deploying technology to replace high-impact activities -- air travel, say -- with lower-impact activities, such as teleconferences. CGOs should see CIOs as allies, and you should see the CGO as another advocate for technology investments.

Be proactive about making C-suite friends

The list of potential C-level peers is endless, but no company embraces all the possibilities. As a CIO, one of your jobs is to figure out which possibilities your company has committed to, and to build working partnerships with key figures such as those listed here.

You may have other C-level executives in your organization -- chief legal officers, chief engineering officers, chief human resources officers, for example. For each, technology almost certainly plays a critical role in accomplishing their goals. In some cases, their domains may be reciprocally important to IT. Evaluate, prioritize and constantly engage. Don't wait for them to reach out to you.

About the author
John Burke is CIO and principal research analyst with Nemertes Research. With nearly two decades of technology experience, he has worked at all levels of IT, including end-user support specialist, programmer, system administrator, database specialist, network administrator, network architect and systems architect. He has worked at The Johns Hopkins University, The College of St. Catherine and the University of St. Thomas.

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