The CIO’s chief of staff: A role to bridge business and IT

The chief of staff role is taking on prominence in companies looking to bolster their IT leadership benches. Amanda Clarke discusses her experience in the role at Newport News Shipbuilding.

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Few roles afford IT leaders the opportunity to double as both a strategic advisor to the CIO and as the glue to hold IT and business together. That’s exactly the position Amanda Clarke found herself in last year when she became chief of staff for Newport News Shipbuilding CIO Bharat Amin.

“I really am an extension of Bharat,” Clarke says, who began her career as an accountant at the $8 billion maker of aircraft carriers before transitioning to IT 14 years ago.

Her duties are equal parts strategic and tactical in providing value to the organization. When her boss is called on to give a presentation, Clarke crafts the talking points and graphics. If business peers need something from IT, they usually lodge their requests with Clarke.

The chief of staff, defined

Clarke’s job is an example of the position. The chief of staff often helms the office of the CIO, a team tasked with ensuring a consistent, strategic approach to IT service delivery, according to Gartner analyst Irving Tyler. But Tyler says the remit of the role varies widely. In some companies, the chief of staff is a glorified administrator. In others, the chief of staff wields more power. Despite the variability, the chief of staff is gaining steam in companies restructuring their IT departments for the future.

Amin, who instituted the chief of staff as a rotational position flipped every 12 to 18 months, handpicked Clarke a year ago. Clarke is well suited to the role, as her previous positions in software development and systems engineering sat at the nexus of people, process and technology.

Clarke assisted in key projects such as the company’s 2011 spinoff from defense contractor Northup Grumman. She also helped facilitate the company’s digital transformation,  which includes shifts to agile development and DevSecOps and practicing technology business management to better align the cost of IT with its value to the business.

Despite these experiences, Clarke allows that she had to think about it; she’d always been involved in projects, so operating at a strategic level was a daunting challenge.

Today, Clarke’s daily grind is often an adventure. It includes building agendas for VP- and board-level meetings; crafting communications for the IT org and soliciting speakers to present to IT; shadowing Amin at meetings or attending business strategy sessions on Amin’s behalf. She also serves as a critical liaison between IT and other departments. This entails running interference for Amin, whose remit broadened in January when he assumed the role of corporate CIO.

As chief of staff, Clarke has built stronger business relationships while enjoying a closer connection with the CIO, from whom she learns a great deal. “This has been the most rewarding and challenging job I’ve had,” Clarke says, adding that she recommends that peers “take it if you get the opportunity.”

More than one way to do the job

Clarke’s mixed-bag role sounds right to Gartner analyst Tyler, who says that chiefs of staff range from junior administrators who shadow CIOs to gain experience into the executive mindset to more senior staff with built-in management experience. Some chiefs of staff have broader remits at their organization, such as owning business relationship management (BRM) or project and portfolio management (PPM). Others are picked for their knack for troubleshooting disasters. For instance, Tyler knows of an insurance company that looped in their chief of staff to get a struggling PPM function “back on track.”

But regardless of their day-to-day duties, chiefs of staff should help CIOs have more time and focus, Tyler says. And that generally means “forcing them to interact with more people” so that they garner respect and experience. They can’t just be “the lieutenants driving the general around in the Jeep,” Tyler adds.

The chief of staff makes for a great stretch assignment at organizations such as Equinix, where CIO Milind Wagle says he created the position for high-potential staff who don’t have the “experience or exposure working with the business.” In this role, which rotates every two years, lucky candidates bolster their credentials by shadowing Wagle and interfacing with the business while helping facilitate IT strategy across the leadership team.

Wagle made it clear that the position of chief of staff, currently occupied by a member of his applications team, is no catch-all job for his leadership team to dump anything that it doesn’t want to do.

“I view it as a role in service to me and the leadership team in which the chief of staff is tasked with enabling the organization to be better set up for digital transformation priorities,” Wagle says.

Tips for aspiring chiefs of staff

Clarke offers the following advice for peers who find themselves faced with the prospect of serving as chiefs of staff.

Research the role. Before taking on the role, Clarke researched it thoroughly, learning the ins and outs, including what it could be. Then she made it what she wanted it to be, including helping senior leaders understand why decisions get made in IT.

Be selfless and proactive. Whether you’re building a meeting agenda or coordinating office communiques, do it in ways that are most likely to help make the organization — and the CIO you are serving — successful. Being a proactive thinker who recommends solutions is a must.

Prioritize the asks. Clarke hears this a lot: “What does Bharat think of this?” Having the ear of the CIO means lot of people try to win you over and influence you.  Listen to their asks, but stand firm; don’t get pulled in so many directions or you’ll get nothing done. “When you have the opportunity to be voice of CIO, they will come to you,” Clarke says.

 

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