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HP Software's community for IT leaders // May 2013

Understanding (and escaping) ‘The CIO Paradox’

A top IT talent recruiter talks about her new book and the many conflicting forces CIOs must overcome.


The CIO’s job can be an endless series of paradoxes: You’re held accountable for a project you didn’t have full ownership over; you were hired to drive strategy but spend all your time holding daily operations together; you’re told to contain costs and fuel innovation.

Martha Heller
Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates and author of a new book, “The CIO Paradox,” takes an insightful, conversational approach to the problem. The former editor (and current columnist) of CIO magazine says the CIO faces more conflicts of mission and strategy than most executives.

“The CIO paradox is a series of contradictions or opposing forces that define the CIO role,” she recently told Discover Performance. “Yes, every executive position has its contradictions, like supply and demand; but there is something about technology that makes the CIO’s set of contradictions truly unique.”

Heller breaks the book into four sections: Your Role, Your Stakeholders, Your Staff, and Your Future. Formal interviews with more than 60 CIOs from companies of all sizes, locations, and industries and located around the world are supplemented with countless informal anecdotes. The result is a vivid picture of what today’s IT leader is up against.

“One CIO came up to me at a conference,” she says, “and asked how and when I read his diary.”

Biggest paradoxes

Of the 11 paradoxes the book identifies, Heller says two best epitomize the CIO’s difficult position. The first is the “Futurist vs. Archivist Paradox”:  Enterprise technology implementation is slow, but market innovation is faster than ever.

“One CIO told me, ‘Just when I finish deploying mobile phones and laptops, here I am dealing with another wave of consumer technology in tablets and smartphones,'” she says.

Another aspect of this chronic challenge is having to support legacy systems while also introducing new technology. The CIO, she says, is left trying to deliver new technology on aged, rickety platforms.

Heller also cites “The Accountability vs. Ownership Paradox.” You develop, fund and win approval for an IT strategy to achieve business objectives. But halfway through implementation, business unit support and participation wanes.

“It’s that last mile of alignment,” she says. “One CIO told me that getting business partners to do their part in implementing IT is like pushing a rope.”

Breaking the paradox

Rather than concocting a generic prescription for CIOs everywhere, Heller’s book shares specific stories of how CIOs solved these various paradoxes. She dives into Roche Diagnostics CIO Werner Boeing’s victory over the “Cost vs. Innovation Paradox.” When Boeing joined the company in 2010, IT was in the midst of a globalization strategy.

Observing that “globalization should never be a strategy; it is a structure in support of something else,” he created a “new model for what IT was all about, something that covered operations, business process change, and the newest goal of the IT organization: innovation.” He did it by working with a photographer to produce a single image—detailed in the book—that provides a metaphor for the complexities of balancing efficiency and innovation in a global IT organization.

Another success was how John Dick balanced the “Global Paradox” as CIO of Western Union, which in 2012 moved $76 billion among 470,000 locations and more than 200 countries and territories—challenges anyone with complex local markets and lines of business will relate to.

The CIO Paradox defines the CIO’s many challenges in a new light. And Heller details the strategies that leading CIOs  have used to overcome them, making it a valuable read not only for CIOs, but for the IT managers who report to them and even their peers in the business.

“CIOs have to spend so much time educating their executive peers about the CIO role, answering questions like: Why do I have to get IT’s approval? Why do projects take so long? Why is there a revolving door of CIOs? Why is the budget so high?” She points to the conflicts outlined in her book. “Well, here’s why.”

Learn more about “The CIO Paradox” and Martha Heller, CEO of Heller Search Associates, at 


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