Rising to the Top?

CIOs might be well suited to lead more than just technology agencies.

by / December 4, 2003
It's no secret the CIO's job has changed in the last 15 years. From a straightforward, "keep the computer systems going" role to a thoughtful, "about the state's IT strategy, governor" role, CIOs' stock has risen. They have found their way to governors' Cabinets or the office two doors away from the mayor -- a far cry from reporting to a deputy director of finance or administration.

So what's the next step? Some believe CIOs are poised to become the next generation of leaders.

Stepping Stones
The rationale for CIOs being leaders of the future is somewhat based on how past leaders ascended to leadership positions -- CEOs used to come from the financial/accounting ranks, but as importance of customer service to a company's bottom line grew, the door opened to sales and marketing pros.

With technology now a central facet of business operations, CIO stature has grown accordingly. One could reason that CIOs have gained a unique, enterprise-wide view of their organizations that positions them to become CEOs.

Though CIOs typically don't top the list of possible replacements for leadership positions in government, the precedent is there, said Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, and lead author of annual e-government reports.

"Increasingly CIOs are being looked to for leadership, and are taking more and more of a public role," West said. "Someone who is really enterprising could use the CIO role as a launching pad for elected office. If Wesley Clark can do this at the presidential level, a CIO could do it at the state level."

CIOs bring communication skills, budget experience, effectiveness and efficiency, he said, which are qualities voters like in public officials. A CIO demonstrating a consistent track record of success would have a better chance of winning an election, West said, adding that a seemingly perfect statewide office for CIOs is state treasurer.

"Typically information people are analytical types," he said. "They're not generally 'rah rah,' overly emotional types of people. A treasurer's office or an office where efficiency or effectiveness are highly desired qualities would be the kinds of offices that would play to the skills of IT people. Sometimes, if somebody can do well in that job, they can run for lieutenant governor or governor."

It's the escalator effect, West said -- starting lower on the escalator of politics is necessary to get to the top, unless a candidate has enough name recognition or personal wealth to bypass the escalator.

But politics means partisanship, an area where CIOs generally don't have tremendous amounts of experience. It's one thing to be appointed by a Democratic governor, for example; it's another to be active in a state's partisan caucus. Though lack of partisan skills could hurt CIOs, West said a nonpartisan label is an advantage because voters have expressed such cynicism with politicians.

"People actually like someone who is a problem solver, as opposed to a partisan," he said. "Voters are really fed up with partisans on both sides because they feel like they don't really solve problems."

CIOs also could parlay their role in building a city, county or state Web site into a successful election because the public has gotten used to e-government, perceiving it as the government of the future. Hitching oneself to that sort of perception is a good thing for anyone running for office, West said.

But transferring skills from one office to a higher office isn't always easy, especially with the increased policy responsibility a higher office brings. CIOs may be able to extol their knowledge of technology policy, but a governor must contend with 10 or 15 policy areas, West said.

Name identification -- one key to gaining recognition and raising money -- presents another hurdle.

"A CIO is not like a prosecutor who's going to be in the news on a regular basis in a positive way," he said. "Most CIOs labor pretty anonymously behind the scenes and don't have a high public profile. That's a bit of a barrier to running for elected office. There are ways to compensate for not being well known, but they all require a lot of money."

Up the Ranks
One former CIO who now holds a nontechnical, leadership position in state government is Greg Larson, chief of staff in the California State Controller's Office. Larson began his public-sector career in the business side of city management in San Jose, Calif., and later became CIO of Scottsdale, Ariz., then took the job of city manager of Milpitas, Calif.

"What I've seen in the last almost 10 years of government CIOs coming to the fore is certainly some generalists moving into the CIO role, as well as CIOs moving up to the executive role," Larson said. "To the extent we have elected executives in government throughout the country, I think it's inevitable we'll see CIOs moving up to elected roles also."

Larson said CIOs grew from the "chief bits and bytes" person in an organization, to the "chief geek," to the "chief strategist" of technology. The natural next step is the chief executive spot, he said, through being elected or appointed.

Having a broader set of responsibilities might prepare CIOs for taking that step, Larson said, citing his dual roles of CIO and general manager for planning and development in Scottsdale as an example. When he was city manager of Milpitas, Larson gave his CIO, Liza Lowery, the additional responsibility of managing a new City Hall project as a way to strengthen technology's stature in the city.

A CIO's association with technology is definitely a benefit, Larson said.

"Technology is where the most exciting changes and dynamics are occurring in government, business and in our own personal lives," he said. "Technologists have a chance to step into performing that visionary role for where an organization needs to go, which is exciting for stepping up into leadership."

Yet all this potential doesn't mean a wave of CIOs will be running for elected office in the near future, Larson said. At the local government level, it's rare for appointed officials to run for mayor because the code of ethics forbids most public administration occupations from participating in electoral politics.

That's not to say it won't happen, but it will take time.

"What I think you'll see happen next is more CIOs rising up to be the chief executive, probably first in appointed roles, be it a city manager, a county executive, a state department or agency head, or a chief of staff to an elected official," he said. "It is inevitable, then, that you'll find some CIOs that will step up to run for office."

View from the Top
John Engler, former governor of Michigan, made sure technology was an important part of his administration. He began his political career in 1970 at the age of 22 when he was elected to the Michigan Legislature. He was elected governor of Michigan in 1990 and re-elected in 1994 and 1998.

Engler, now president of state and local government and vice president of government solutions for North America at EDS, helped craft a legislative package -- the MI HiSpeed Internet Plan was aimed at stimulating broadband rollout in Michigan through incentives, and state and local cooperation on access to rights-of-way. He also created the e-Michigan Office to coordinate state agencies' e-government efforts.

The idea of a state CIO or technology secretary running for a statewide elected office is not so far-fetched, he said, given the increased visibility of CIOs in governors' Cabinets, the enterprise skills CIOs have developed and the backgrounds of many state CIOs.

"You're getting a bit of back and forth between government and industry," Engler said, citing George Newstrom, Aldona Valicenti and Peter Quinn as examples of state CIOs that forged solid careers in the private sector before setting up shop in a state technology office.

"I have great regard for the job CIOs perform," Engler said. "Either they, or the people that work for them, are, by necessity, into the nitty-gritty of government. How does a program actually work? Who's delivering the service? How do we improve that? And sometimes, how do we improve that with technology even though there are fewer people?"

A good CIO is effective as a leader because he or she has important skills, he said. They look across organizational boundaries, view the whole of government as a single enterprise and often carry out unpopular orders from the governor.

"The right kind of CIO has got some marvelous skills," he said.

It's clear in the last few years CIOs have proved themselves as valuable members of a governor's administration by showing governors how to reduce IT expenditures, consolidate certain IT assets, such as data centers, and re-engineer business processes to remove duplicated efforts. CIOs have also demonstrated that e-government can make constituents happy and save money at the same time.

Though this sort of nuts and bolts approach wins a CIO points with the governor, it also could translate into campaign fodder if a CIO gets a yen to run for elected office. And there's another wild card that might make the CIO's hand even stronger.

"We're in an era of term limits," Engler said. "That's using up the talent faster than ever before. That has a cascading effect down the line. With legislative term limits, that means a person coming from, say, the legislative branch or even another statewide elected post, can't have a 20-year history. If you get a chance to serve four or eight years as CIO of a state, suddenly your experience is going to look pretty comparable to the most experienced person who might be in that field."

Furthermore, CIOs' nonpolitical background doesn't lessen their chances for gaining elected office, particularly with many voters identifying less fiercely with political parties.

"There's an awful lot of people who just will not identify with one party or the other anymore," Engler said. "They want to be free to pick and choose among the candidates they like. I don't think CIOs would be particularly hurt by being nonpartisan. It seems to me you're more hurt these days if you're staunchly and excessively one or the other."

On the other hand, being nonpartisan is not a surefire way to get elected, he cautioned, because successful candidates must still secure the nomination of their chosen parties to run for a big-time elected office like governor -- and going through a primary to secure a nomination is a different political battle.

Practical Example
Thomas Bynum is the acting deputy commissioner of Washington state's Employment Security Department (ESD). He also is chairman of the Customer Advisory Board (CAB) for the state's CIOs and was recently selected to serve on the national Information Technology Support Center (ITSC) Steering Committee. Bynum is one of two CIOs appointed to a three-year term as information technology director for the committee.

Bynum started with the ESD in April 1995 as CIO of the agency's Information Technology Services Division. He began his public-sector career in Washington's Office of Financial Management (OFM) in 1991 as the agency's IT manager, where he was responsible for overseeing the OFM's statewide financial computer systems.

He has served as the ESD's acting deputy commissioner for more than a year. The move up was a natural progression, he said, because much of an agency's operations are based on technology, putting the CIO in a higher realm in the decision-making process.

"CIOs have had a chance to show what we're capable of, and I just happen to be one of the lucky ones to be in a position to demonstrate that," he said.

Still, some skeptics don't perceive CIOs as leadership material when it comes to an entire agency. And CIOs themselves share some responsibility for creating such skepticism.

"Coming up through the ranks, we've had a tendency to speak too much techie talk, so you've got to work your way out of that," Bynum said. "People see you as more of a technical type person."

CIOs often face a double-edged sword, he said. IT is ingrained in decision-making today, but many CEOs or agency directors don't fully understand technology. They rely on a CIO for that understanding, which relegates a CIO to technical translator.

An unintended consequence of this situation is that CIOs aren't always seen as having equal expertise on the business side of an enterprise.

"It's a matter of the CIO being able to break it down into terms that peers or his or her boss can understand, and give them the confidence that you understand what they need and understand their business as well as they do," Bynum said. "That's when you start getting the credibility, when you speak on their terms, as opposed to on the terms they expect of you -- the techie terms."

The chance to excel in a higher role still hinges on effective leadership, and CIOs have helped themselves immensely by becoming much more polished over the last decade, he said.

Bynum noted that CIOs weren't asked participate in policy-making 10 to 15 years ago. Now they have made that jump. The next step is convincing voters they're ready to serve as mayors or statewide elected officials.

"You've got to demonstrate to the public that you're ready to go to the next level, that you can take them to the next level," he said. "IT is only going to be an enabler to get them there, and you have that understanding of it, that background. Having that in your repertoire of experience makes you a stronger person."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor