C-Suite Leadership

The Secret Today's CEO Holds Close To Their Chest

More CIOs are reporting to CEOs than ever. And it won’t matter unless CEOs know how to turn their work with CIOs into a partner relationship. But effective CEOs know how to do just that and gain a competitive advantage in doing so.

Scott Smeester


March 9, 2023

Dear CEO,

But is your best friend.

In recent years, but has taken a spanking in our English language. 

Perhaps you have seen the trend: replace the word but with and. As in, I know you are busy, and I need you to solve this problem before Friday.

The thinking is that “and” is more positive than “but.” And, the thinking is that “but” negates whatever precedes it. 

It sounded fluffy when I first heard the advice, and it has played out worse than I thought.

“But” is and has been for thousands of years an acceptable and preferable word of contrast.

And we need contrast. Contrast does not negate the previous words before it; it highlights and emphasizes what comes after it. “But” is a major asset. 

Effective CEOs Leverage One Very Important “But”

In the 2012 Avengers movie, Tony Stark (Iron Man) warns Loki (the nemesis), “Not a great plan. When they come, and they will, they will come for you.” Loki responds, “I have an army.” Tony answers, “We have a Hulk.”

As a CEO, you have a Hulk. Hulk is your but. 

Other CEOs have similar opportunities and obstacles as you. You and they share a common job description, reporting structure and ambition. They, as you, face external circumstances beyond their control, dysfunctional systems in need of change and personal challenges that need to be mastered.


You practice something they don’t. You cultivate a relationship they think of as an “and” but which you treat as a “but.” 

You prioritize partnership with your CIO. 

It’s not that other CEOs don’t have CIOs reporting to them; over the last three years, CIOs reporting to CEOs has increased from 56% to 74%. That’s great. I have advocated for that for a while now.

But reporting doesn’t equal partnership. (See how “and” would have been so weak starting the sentence).

What A Great CEO-CIO Relationship Looks Like

Your CIO is your Hulk, your ever present but, when you are partnered in two primary areas.

Business Integration 

CIOs need the CEO to help them understand the business, the market, the competition and customers. They also need the CEO to sanction, stamp with approval and stake the CIOs relationship with other members of the C-Suite and business partners. 

The CIO is a critical operations partner, aligning tech with business strategy. Without knowledge of what is ahead, IT can become a drag on the business instead of dancing with the business. 

The CIO then consistently and clearly shows the CEO how everything is connected, technology as an integration, not an island to itself. 

In reference to business integration, the CIO is able to relate to the CEO the aptness of current technology trends, seeding the need for early adoption and its benefit to business strategies. 

(How many CEOs have asked their CIOS about Chat GPT recently)?

Above all, the CIO is able to help the CEO communicate the value of IT and technology, and to set context for technology adoption or, at times, avoidance of some specific technologies.

CEOs need truth tellers if they are to be led to and lead to solutions. You have a significant advantage when you are able to say, “but my CIO tells me the truth.”

Critical Implementation

You need the CIO as an offensive asset, facilitating key initiatives, AND you need the CIO as a defensive strength. The CIO defends against internal weaknesses, outside threats and business diseases. 

Automation in itself is not a strategy; automation is an answer to weak processes and flows. Proper usage of automation is key for management.

Cyber security and disaster response is the frontline of the war you are in. And you are in a war. While you are fighting for the mission of your business success, forces against you, having nothing to do with your business other than to use you as a chess piece to be taken, are focused on you.

As CEO, your partnership with your CIO keeps you informed of the threat levels you face and the security integrity you operate in. It’s no small analogy: The President of the United States receives daily security briefings; you merit the same from your CIO.

Your customers rely on your technology to serve them swiftly, securely and accurately. Responsiveness is critical; response time is now. No if, and or buts about it. 

We serve impatient people who measure by high expectations. Your partnership with your CIO, in relationship to your customer service, is as critical or more so than any other public facing leader on your team.

I recently booked a flight with Southwest Airlines despite their holiday debacle. I hesitated, though, when I read a story of how their new CIO will not be reporting directly to the CEO. 


Then again, if as a CEO you have your CIO report to you, but you don’t intentionally strengthen it into your most critical partnership, you will have “pulled a Southwest” anyway. 


I believe better of you.


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