The rise and rise of the IT chief of staff

As CIOs play a larger role in digitization, the IT chief of staff is fast becoming indispensable.

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At two-thirds of companies today, a senior IT leader is working on the next draft of the IT strategy, or perhaps revising a workforce plan in preparation for a transformation. After that, he or she might chase down some red flags on the monthly IT scorecard or meet with a finance leader to discuss a budget update. And before leaving for the day, this leader might draft a monthly IT team newsletter or put the finishing touches on a deck for an upcoming all-hands meeting.

Who is this person, the CIO?

No, it’s the IT chief of staff.

The CIO role is changing fast as they get involved in product technology, help to shape digital strategy and build digital acumen across the company. The only way CIOs can find time to do these things is to delegate many of the IT management and governance tasks that have traditionally filled much of their calendars.

As a result, a majority of large companies now have an IT chief of staff (or director of IT business operations, or head of the office of the CIO - there is no consensus yet on the name). This is a relatively new trend. A 2016 CEB, now Gartner, survey of 47 chiefs of staff at global companies found that 64 percent are the first in the role at their companies (Disclosure, I am employed by CEB, now Gartner). It’s also a senior position. Chiefs of staff report directly to the CIO, and in addition to long careers in IT, more than half have spent at least three years working elsewhere in the business, mostly frequently in finance, strategy or customer service.

More than half of chiefs of staff are responsible for IT strategy, process and methodologies, and/or the PMO. Other common duties include IT communications, vendor management, budgeting, and organizational change management, and the role is continuing to evolve.

In the last year, chiefs of staff have shifted away from finance and budgeting activities to spend more time on change management and architecture. Their objectives are also changing, with less emphasis on cost management and the delivery of specific initiatives and more on business growth and innovation. All of this indicates the role is becoming more business-focused, and more critical to the future development of IT. Looking forward, we may see a fundamental realignment below the CIO with the chief of staff taking over governance and strategy (including EA and PMO), and a head of delivery emerging to oversee Applications and Infrastructure.

The diverse, fast changing nature of the chief of staff role creates pitfalls, notably the risk of the person in the role being overwhelmed. In talking to CIOs and their chiefs of staff, we’ve learned four lessons for how to establish and develop the role successfully.

1. Look for someone who is tenured in the organization and has experience outside IT

Chiefs of staff have relatively small teams (although big enough that they can’t escape being good managers) and get a lot done through influence, personal credibility and their knowledge of the organization. It’s not impossible for an experienced external hire to be successful, but it’s easier for someone who has already built a good track record at the company.

2. Decide whether the chief of staff should focus on developing strategy or overseeing delivery

It’s hard to do both, so CIOs should be clear whether they want a chief of staff to set direction or orchestrate delivery. The current trend is toward strategy-setting but the right answer will depend on a company’s priorities and how the CIO spends his or her time.

3. Expand and evolve the chief of staff’s responsibilities over time

The most valuable chiefs of staff focus on the CIO’s highest priorities. As those change, so should the role. An evolving role will also keep chiefs of staff engaged and set them up for future career moves, particularly as our survey found that almost half ultimately want to become a CIO.

4. But be careful to not over commit their time

There is a joke that the chief of staff is really “chief of stuff,” and they can be overloaded with everything from oversight of M&A integration to facilities planning. In particular, CIOs should resist the temptation to have applications, security, or other more operational groups report to the chief of staff simply because there’s no good alternative. And as CIOs give their chiefs of staff new responsibilities, they should deprioritize some as well.

As CIOs play a larger role in digitization, the IT chief of staff is fast becoming indispensable. In fact, it’s increasingly hard to imagine how CIOs will be able to meet all the expectations placed on them in the digital enterprise without a chief of staff at their side.

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