Knowledge Institute Podcasts
Dr. Tony Gerth on Taking Charge as CIO
Dr. Tony Gerth, Clinical Professor at the University of North Texas and author of "Taking the Reins as CIO," discusses the challenges, misconceptions, and opportunities faced by new CIOs and the evolution of the role of CIO.
Hosted by Jeff Kavanaugh, VP and Head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute.
“This is the golden age of the CIO. It’s a great time to be a great CIO, and a bad time to be an average one.”
- Dr. Tony Gerth
Dr. Tony Gerth’s upcoming book on tech leadership delves into the challenges faced by newly hired CIOs and what they should do to be successful. Tony interviewed dozens of CIOs from around the world. Whose story seems especially relevant?
Dr. Gerth talks about his background in academia and consulting.
Tony shares his perspective on what does the role of CIO really mean, and what does it require to be successful?
The average tenure of a CIO is 4.3 years. In his book Tony says, this is the golden age. It's never been better to be a great CIO or worse time to be an average ONE. What does he mean by that?
The ambiguity of the CIO role, Dr. Gerth talks about paradoxes.
Well given that, how many of these new CIO's are ready? And what can people do to be readier?
How new leaders fit in?
Dr. Tony Gerth paints a scenario for us. What causes a CIO transition, and what's the best scenario that someone can walk into or maybe the best scenario that they can land on their feet?
We’ve talked about landing on your feet, getting started well, what about beyond the 90 days?
What are some situations and symptoms when it doesn't go so well and the thing gets derailed?
Tony talks about that relationship between the CMO and their people and the CIO when they're in the organization.
One more example in the C-suite, what about the chief human resources officer? There is “talent famine”, simply just not enough of talent. What is the CIO-CHRO relationship to help with the people part of the business?
Dr. Tony Gerth shares his insights that are useful for those trying to take that next step or help others avoid the derailing.
What's the distinct or novel perspective Dr. Gerth took as he developed the book?
Who or what has been a major influence on Tony?
Jeff Kavanaugh: Tony Gerth, your upcoming book on tech leadership delves into the challenges faced by newly hired CIOs and what they should do to be successful. For the book, you interviewed dozens of CIOs from around the world. Is there one person whose story seems especially relevant?
Dr. Tony Gerth: Well, Jeff, there's lots of stories that a lot of what the book is, but one that comes to mind right away, and I won't use her real name, because she contributed anonymously, but she came up through finance, her entire career was a director of finance, and then was asked to lead a business transformation effort, and while she was doing that, the current CIO joked with her that she would someday be the CIO, which she laughed off. As, you know, no way would I ever take the CIO role, and of course, as it turns out, she was in fact promoted to CIO after he retired. Never say never, I guess.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, and taking charge as CIO is what we'll be exploring in today's conversation.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Welcome to the Knowledge Institute podcast where we talk with thought leaders on business trends, deconstruct main ideas, and share their insights. I'm Jeff Kavanaugh, head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute, and today we're here with Tony Gerth. Tony's a clinical professor in the business school at the University of North Texas. Tony's formal training includes a doctoral degree in management, and master's and bachelor's degrees in executive and operations management. Tony's probably best known for his extensive experience as management consulting, managing partner at firms like Infosys Consulting and Deloitte. For 11 years, Tony taught IT strategy and consulting as a professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, and now teaches similar areas at the University of North Texas.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Tony, thanks for joining us.
Dr. Tony Gerth: Thanks Jeff for the invitation. Glad to be here.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Let's explore a little bit. Could you briefly take us back? What got you started? You've got a varied career in academia now and consulting before, what got you interested in this line of work?
Dr. Tony Gerth: Well, reflecting on that, I think it was actually my father. He was a systems analyst back in the mainframe days, and he used to actually bring home computer reports, when they would print these big mainframe reports out on paper, and I just thought that was fascinating. And so, as I got into college, I got very interested in business and technology and the use of technology in business. And so that's really where my interest was, although I wasn't able to do that kind of work in the beginning when I got out of school. I got into manufacturing operations, but I had the opportunity, after a few years to move into more of the business systems area. And then that led to being assigned to a big SAP project in my company. And I was working with consultants, and I saw what they did and I thought, "Well, I can do this." And so, so I did. And so I got into consulting and really enjoyed being able to solve complex problems, and work with really high performing teams. And yeah. And then I made the career switch to academia. So I'm on my third career, I guess.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, lifelong learning and a series of careers I think is the mode for many folks. In your book, refer to quite often, because I think it's more than a book. It's almost like it's a library of your career. A summary of a lot of the inputs, insights. Perhaps no executive role has gotten more glory and more grief in recent times than the chief information officer. From your perspective, what does the role really mean, and what does it require to be successful?
Dr. Tony Gerth: The role's evolved a lot over the last 40 years. So 1981 was the first time chief information officer, that term was used by William Senate, before it was always data processing manager. Kind of in the accounting world, and over the years it's become more and more important. I really do think that this is the golden age for CIOs. It's a great time to be a great CIO and a bad time to be an average CIO, but I think really what makes the role so difficult. Number one, it's very ambiguous. If you talk to any CEO, they'll probably, or a number of CEOs, they'll give you a fairly, I think homogenous definition of a chief financial officer, or a marketing VP, but they'll probably give you multiple answers of what a CIO is, and what a good one looks like.
Dr. Tony Gerth: So that's the first challenge, but I, I think that the other challenges are that the CIO cannot accomplish anything for the most part on their own. They have to exert influence across the organization. They have to understand the business in a very broad sense. They have to manage, they have to lead a team of people that have very high demand skills in the market. So how do I retain them? How do I develop those kind of people? And lastly, the technology just changes so fast. So to be responsible for leading the knowledge in the company on how to use technology to transform the company, how to do digital transformation, it's a tough job. It really is.
Jeff Kavanaugh: I read recently where the average tenure of a CIO is 4.3 years. In your book you say, this is the golden age. It's never been better to be a great CIO or worse time to be an average ONE. What do you mean by that?
Dr. Tony Gerth: Well, I mean to be a great CIO, technology today in the way it's transforming business, and I tell my students this too. I mean, I've been around this for a long time now, and I have never seen the plethora of technologies that are touching us both on a personal level, and an organizational level to the extent that they are today. So I think the upside is so big for organizations from a digital transformation perspective that the CIO can make a huge impact, even a bigger impact than, than they've ever been able to make.
Dr. Tony Gerth: Likewise, if they're not up to the task, it can impact an organization's performance in a negative way.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, let's jump right into some of the themes from the book. The ambiguity of the CIO role, you talk about paradoxes, can you talk about that?
Dr. Tony Gerth: The challenge for a CIO is many executives look at them as simply a service provider, right? And in fact, in the book we talk about identifying really three perceptions of a CIO that non-IT executives have. And that was I think one strength of the book is that we introduce the perceptions of a CEO's peers into the conversation, not just the CIO's perspective themselves, and from a non-IT executive perspective, they have three kind of fundamental views of the CIO. One is as a service provider, which is simply keep the email running type person. And this perspective really kind of comes from the CIO being just a technical expert. The second perception or the second type of CIO is they expect a solution provider. So I would compare it to a consulting partner. They expect a lot of expertise from the CIO. They expect them to be collaborative, they expect solutions to their problems, but they don't really expect the CIO to be part of the team, if you will, the top management team. And then the final version of a CIO, if you will, is as a strategic contributor. And that in fact is a CIO who's viewed as a top management peer to the rest of the executive team.
Dr. Tony Gerth: So that's where the ambiguity comes in, and even within a particular organization, different executives may have different perceptions of the CIO, and then to layer even a little more complexity on top of that. Certainly different organizations view IT in different strategic ways. So either more or less strategically. So you have the combination of what's the organizational view of IT strategically, down to what the individual executives view of the CIO role is.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, the way you've painted it, it's like you have to have an S on your chest to go into the role.
Dr. Tony Gerth: Well, it's true.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well given that, how many of these new CIO's are ready? And what can people do to be more ready?
Dr. Tony Gerth: Yeah, that's a good question. How many are ready? I think the research that we've done in speaking to CIOs, would say that you're never completely ready, at least the very first time for it. But even experienced CIOs would say that in organizations that they entered as an external hire, you never know quite what you've gotten into until you get there on the ground. The good news is they have more experience to deal with that uncertainty and ambiguity. So I think that it's like a lot of executive roles. It's difficult to say you're ready. Although some of the CIOs have stories where they in fact work in the organization as a consultant, or came up through the ranks, and really were groomed intentionally to take the CIO role. So in those cases those people were certainly ready. I think another interest of mine is how IT organizations actually do groom the next generation of CIOs, and my perspective is that right now they're probably not doing a great job of that.
Dr. Tony Gerth: There's a lot of training and development available for IT professionals from the standpoint of getting more acronyms behind your name or certifications and things like that, but I think the leadership aspects of that, in particular leadership within the context of leading IT is probably lacking a little bit. Another way to get ready though is to give senior IT folks more exposure to the business, because ultimately they have to understand the organization and how it makes money. It's too easy at times for senior people in IT to kind of be siloed within their little technology bubble.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Just going back to what you're saying about how new leaders fit in.
Dr. Tony Gerth: Yes. A big part of that is learning the language. As a consultant it was always interesting to me to go into an organization and sit in a meeting and listen to all the jargon and acronyms being thrown around the meant something to someone, but it didn't mean anything to me. One of the first things in the first 90 to 100 days, the CIO needs to do is really kind of understand the language of the business, get to know how the business makes money, and learn how to speak the language of the business to their peers in the top management team.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Paint a scenario for us. What causes a CIO transition, and what's the best scenario that someone can walk into or maybe the best scenario that they can land on their feet?
Dr. Tony Gerth: We identified four different transition types, one of which is a startup. So it's pretty self-explanatory, if you're starting a new company, you've got a lot of discretion on how you build the team and the technology transfer. So really the other three transitions set the context for the CIO. So you have what we call the success sustaining transition, which is taking over a successful organization, and that's typically done by insiders. People inside the organization are typically promoted into that role, in that context. And then the other two, which are a little more challenging are a realignment and a turnaround. Realignment being that the organization is viewed as kind of veering off course and needs to be brought back to the center. And then the turnaround is basically the organization's viewed as being in the ditch and needs to be pulled out. But the interesting thing around that context, of course, is that a lot of CIO transitions when the CIO is hired from the outside of the organization, are related to a CEO transition.
Dr. Tony Gerth: So it's not uncommon for a organization to get a new CEO. The CEO looks around and decides that the IT organization is not as strategic as it should be perhaps, or is not running well, fires the CIO, and hires a new CIO coming in. The other thing that happens, we saw in these transitions, was that you also get a situation where the previous CEO viewed IT simply as a cost center and so underfunded it. So it doesn't necessarily mean that the previous CIO was a bad executive, but they just weren't given the resources to do what they needed. So anytime you have a leadership transition like that, often as you know, the executives lower in the top management team turnover as well. So that happens quite often.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Once again, you're listening to the Knowledge Institute where we talk with experts on business trends, deconstruct main ideas, and share their insights. We are here with Dr. Tony Gerth, University of North Texas professor and expert on CIO transitions. Tony, you talked about landing on your feet, getting started well, what about beyond the 90 days?
Dr. Tony Gerth: So a big part of the book, and our interest in doing this research and writing the book, was to look beyond the first 90 days. Everybody's familiar with the first 90 to 100 days kind of idea. Getting started with a transition. And I will shout out Michael Watkins book, The First 90 Days, as as one of the sources that inspired us to look at this phenomenon, if you will, strictly from a CIO perspective, but we also realized that we were interested in what's the process, and what's it look like beyond the first 90 days. Because not a lot can happen quite honestly in that amount of time. And what we found were two additional phases past the first 90 days. The second was a stabilization phase where a CIO basically gets their hands around the IT organization, builds their team, puts in some governance, and really builds some credibility in the organization as being an effective leader of the IT organization.
Dr. Tony Gerth: And then the third phase really was renewal. And that was where a CIO can then transition from being viewed only as the leader of the IT organization to more of a strategic contributor to the overall organization. Getting more involved in strategic conversations with the top management team, and really ultimately being viewed as a business leader with special responsibility for IT, which is what my coauthor Joe Peppard and I believe is the actual definition of the CIO role.
Dr. Tony Gerth: So what we found was that this is a two to three year process before a CIO really has the understanding of the organization, the credibility and the influence to act as a strategic contributor.
Jeff Kavanaugh: I do believe you mentioned before about the best times and worst times, so we'll talk the other side of the coin as well. What are some situations and symptoms when it doesn't go so well and the thing gets derailed?
Dr. Tony Gerth: CIOs derail for a number of different reasons, but it often comes back to a little bit of what we talked about, right? It's the mirror image of what they have to do to be successful. If they don't learn the business, that's certainly one thing. If they focus too much on technology, but I would say the biggest overall reason is poor relationships with their top management peers. Many of the executives, we talked to non-IT executives about how CIOs failed, and almost unanimously they would say they didn't learn the business, and they didn't build relationships with their peer group. And so this idea of building relationships, exerting influence through those relationships really makes or breaks whether a CIO is successful or not. So it's all about the people.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Let's dig a little bit deeper in their relationships, because especially in one area, so we're actually doing some other research on this as well for the chief marketing officer, because digital experience, all those things are so topical now. They're so important, and yet they're customer facing. While the CIO is typically a little more inward or tech facing, talk about that relationship between the chief marketing officer, and their people and the CIO when they're in the organization.
Dr. Tony Gerth: The chief marketing officer is kind of in a similar bind as far as collaboration goes, because there are certain things that they can control, but assuming that they want to create a better customer experience that often means some sort of digital solution, right? Digital transformation, and I guess we can talk about the chief digital officer relationship with the CIO, but let's leave that aside right now.
Dr. Tony Gerth: Normally all that technology capability resides under the CIO's control, and so a close collaboration between the two is very important, and all the way back to the very beginning, which is how do we prioritize our IT investments and is the CMO's agenda, a strategic agenda, or only the CMO's agenda, right? Because of it's the strategic agenda, then this is where the CIO and the CMO can collaborate to deliver that kind of experience for customers.
Jeff Kavanaugh: One more example in the C-suite, what about the chief human resources officer? Because if there's a talent war out there, in our research, we actually use the phrase talent famine, they're just not enough of it. What is the CIO CHRO relationship to help with the people part of the business?
Dr. Tony Gerth: Yeah. Well it needs to be close. I think that the challenge for the chief human resource officer is to understand the potential uniqueness of the market for IT talent. I think some of the problems or the tension that results from that relationship between the CIO and the HR leader is simply that running after IT talent doesn't necessarily align with a broader standardized HR policy. Whether that be compensation or bonuses or training budget or whatever, whatever it is. So I think it behooves the CIO to work with the CHRO to create a customized talent management process. And this may also include a dual career tracks, right? There aren't too many organizations or careers within an organization that really need a dual career track. What I mean by that is, the people in the IT organization need to have the choice to either move into management or stay on a technical track and become experts in that particular technical expertise. So there are some policies like that that may be unique to the IT organization that the HR function needs to be open to establishing.
Jeff Kavanaugh: You spent a lot of time in the area of management consulting. You've had time in academic world and some time in business. If you look at from that unique perspective, what insights come out that you'd like to share with our audience who often are executives and people that are trying to take that next step or help others avoid the derailing?
Dr. Tony Gerth: Right. Well, okay, so the first is to understand what the definition of success is for you. This is an important thing for CIOs as well, but when you come into a new organization, really trying to understand how am I going to be perceived as successful? What does that mean? I think many times people come in, and especially people at a senior level, come in with their own preconceived notions of what success looks like, and unless that is aligned with the rest of the management team, or certainly their direct superior, that can cause problems, right? They'll think they're successful and they're not. So I think defining success is important. I think then really relationship building. I think the mistake that a lot of people make is that the people don't matter, and technical expertise is what's important. And it took me a little bit in my career to get that, right? The soft stuff is the hard stuff, and technology is relatively easy compared to getting-
Jeff Kavanaugh: Maybe simple if not easy. Or, you know, it's-
Dr. Tony Gerth: Yes, no. Yes, that's a better way to say it. It's not necessarily easy, but it's more straightforward I would say, but getting people to change, influencing people is very difficult, and if you don't learn how to do that, then all the technical expertise in the world is not going to make you as successful as you could be.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Going back to the book, obviously you spent a lot of time developing that and distilling your thoughts on the topic. What's the distinct or novel perspective you took as you developed the book?
Dr. Tony Gerth: From a research perspective, the thing that was novel about what Joe and I have done is that we focused these efforts on executive transitions on the CIO. There was really only one small research project that even started to take a look at this phenomena, and we felt like it was an underserved area to explore. So all the management literature on executive transitions focuses primarily on CEOs, and we wanted to look at the CIO in particular. I think the other piece that was novel was looking past the first 90 days of what they did, and trying to look at it from a process perspective over time.
Dr. Tony Gerth: The book itself, we really felt like after 10 years of this research that we had an opportunity to consolidate it all in one place. I don't think it's a big surprise to people that executives don't read academic research papers. In fact, I don't like to read academic research papers either. So what we really wanted to do was write a book that was grounded in research for sure, and could be appreciated by academics, but really is focused more on the CIO audience or the senior IT leader audience. The practitioner audience, the executive audience, and written in a way that speaks to them, and it is readable and relatable to them, because really our objective is to help them succeed at the end of the day.
Jeff Kavanaugh: That's a good North star for us all, for anything that we're doing. Starting to wrap it up a bit. I was curious to see who or what's been a major influence.
Dr. Tony Gerth: On a personal note, as I mentioned my father earlier, I think probably certain professors, it's interesting now actually being a professor, because I think back and there are a few people I can remember and most I don't remember it all, right? So you always kind of wonder who clicks with you, and why, but I think that from a little broader perspective, from a professional perspective, I mentioned Michael Watkins in the first 90 days, and then there was another book which really was written and published in 1986 by John J Gabarro who was a Harvard Business School professor, and it was called The Dynamics of Taking Charge. And he studied 14 general managers, in much the same way that Joe and I have studied CIOs. So I would say that was another influence on getting us interested in how we might take something similar and construct it for CIO research.
Dr. Tony Gerth: And I would also say that professionally, the 15 years that I spent as a consultant really kind of made me who I am as a professional. So working with complex problems, working with very smart people, working with great clients. I certainly got to know that CIOs are very bright, innovative people who have decided to take on a really hard role. So I think they're interesting people to hang out with.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Yeah, I wanted that last part to come out, because I know with your consulting background you've seen a lot and other parts of the world.
Jeff Kavanaugh: What online can you recommend or how can people find you online?
Dr. Tony Gerth: You can find me at University of North Texas website, but my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can just search for me on LinkedIn, Tony Gerth, G-E-R-T-H, and you can find me on LinkedIn.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Also you can find details for Tony on our show notes and transcripts at infosys.com/iki in our podcast section.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Tony, thank you for your time and a very interesting discussion. Everyone, you've been listening to the Knowledge Institute where we talk with experts on business trends, deconstruct main ideas, and share their insights. Thanks to our producers, Catherine Burdette and Dode Bigley, and the entire Knowledge Institute team. Till next time, keep learning and keep sharing.
About Tony Gerth
Tony is a clinical professor in the business school at the University of North Texas. Tony's formal training includes a doctoral degree in management, and master's and bachelor's degrees in executive and operations management.
Tony's probably best known for his extensive experience as management consulting, managing partner at firms like Infosys Consulting and Deloitte. For 11 years, Tony taught IT strategy and consulting as a professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, and now teaches similar areas at the University of North Texas.
- Connect with Tony Gerth: LinkedIn, Twitter
- Email: email@example.com
- University of North Texas
- Kelley School of Business at Indiana University
- Read these books:
- Taking the Reins as CIO: A Blueprint for Leadership Transitions by Tony Gerth
- The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael D. Watkins
- The Dynamics of Taking Charge by John J. Gabarro
Selected links from the episode