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CIO Unplugged 4/20/11

April 20, 2011 Ed Marx 4 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

This is the second in a short series of posts on “The CIOs Best Friends,” BFFs who are critical in ensuring CIO effectiveness. This time we cover the CFO – CIO relationship.

The CFO – CIO Relationship

When asked to take on additional responsibilities, I inherited our financial applications team. This scared me. Not because of the expanded scope, but because I’d have to deal with our CFO, a person feared in the halls of IT.

During the first week in my new role as corporate director, the CFO demanded an update on the troubled decision support project for which my team was responsible. I gathered players and facts and cautiously took my seat in the arena … I mean, in his conference room. He was not happy about the multiple delays and lack of concrete plans for resolution.

My project manager struggled in her responses. The CFO’s gaze then landed on me.

I don’t recall if my summation came across as eloquent or suspect, but my speech carried a mix of service compassion and urgency. I ended with, balls to the wall. The CFO smiled. I made a connection — one free pass for the new guy to facilitate resolution.

No C-suite relationship has changed more this past decade than that of the CIO – CFO. As technology influence becomes increasingly strategic to success, wise organizations are evolving. CIOs are crawling out from under the CFO’s shadow and taking their rightful seats at the executive table.

Regardless of whom the CIO reports to, the relationship with the CFO remains essential. I have worked with several over the years, a mix of old school and new school. Here is what I discovered as keys to both personal and organizational success.

Connection. You have to establish a relationship that transcends organization boundaries. Something unique happens when you break bread together. Get out of the office with your CFO at least monthly for breakfast or lunch. Or, if you both enjoy working out, then a few-mile run or a one-on-one basketball game may be the answer. The point is to get out of the office and get acquainted on a personal level. A healthy foundation sets the tone for a thriving work relationship.

Collaboration. One way to supercharge the relationship is to join forces on an initiative or project, ideally one that benefits the organization and is important to the CFO. Welcome proactive ideas on taking costs out or leveraging technology to increase revenue. i.e. redesign processes to enable a faster month-end close or any technology to accelerate cash collection. Suggest working together to ensure Meaningful Use achievement. Don’t wait to be asked. Be the first to anticipate and reach out.

Knowledge. Learn everything you can about finance. Take courses and read what the CFO reads. I attend HFMA conferences and read their periodicals. Participate in finance webinars. Speak their language and understand what is important to them. How do they measure their success? What are the key benchmarks, and are they up or down?

Execute. Do it well. Never undertake anything halfway. With finance, precision is the standard, and you cannot afford to miss a commitment. If you cite a number or percentage, hit the mark exactly.

Trust. Be good stewards of your finite resources. Be transparent and accountable. Have a finance person on your team to assist with budget oversight. Ensure that your governance process has a closed loop process where you measure baseline and ROI achievement, and then report on it. If you say a new application will reduce costs or increase revenue, then ensure the specific budget is updated to reflect this. Conduct a zero-based budgeting exercise and review every budget line item with your managers and finance. Trust takes time and relationship.

Shared Vision. Once you establish the relationship and build trust through collaboration and execution, you can then arrive at a shared vision for the role of technology in your enterprise. You need the CFO’s support to be successful, and he or she needs yours. Give the CFO every reason to be enthusiastic about endorsing the direction of IT to ensure a commitment of resources available over multiple years.

The benefits of a strong CIO – CFO relationship are many and lead to a stellar organizational ROI. I have multiple examples of how the support of the CFO helped me fulfill the shared vision and positively impact the organization’s quality of care, patient safety, and business growth. Everything from financing critical infrastructure, implementing EHRs, obtaining Meaningful Use, or starting new businesses.

Some of you may be saying, “But you don’t know my CFO. He starves me deliberately.” Actually, I’ve worked with both types, the backward-thinking and the progressive. I feel your pain. But don’t let the die-hard keep you from making your best effort. If nothing else, your character and strength will improve. Be proactive for the sake of organizational success. Be relentless and keep developing the relationship.

That intimidating CFO? He turned out to be quite personable and of excellent character. I was so impressed that I asked him to be my formal mentor. He accelerated my growth. He pushed me to new heights personally and professionally. I moved from corporate director to CIO because of his influence.

Leverage these ideas and ensure your relationship is not sub-optimized. Accelerate quickly at full throttle. Balls to the wall!


Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hi Ed, nice job on a really important pairing. All your points are well taken. Here’s an alternative solution to the “connection” part: Yeah, they should break bread, maybe go to a concert or game–but sometimes it just ain’t happening. Years ago in another lifetime I found myself as the link between a CIO and CFO. They just didn’t make it on that level with each other, but they both had that connection with me. I wound up filling in those gaps between them. Officially a half FTE for each, I sat on project teams for both, hung out with both, and most important, wound up championing one to the other 24/7. Hey it’s not the perfect solution but it worked–we wound up with some serious awards for our EMR efforts, and stayed in the black.

  2. Hmm, seems like ‘old wine in new bottle…’
    Develop personal relationship
    Work together
    Know your job
    Do your job

    What’s that saying about brevity and genious?

  3. Great article (which I now expect from you!) but I have one slightly-more-than-a quibble: The suggestion that bonding over one-on-one basketball or a workout assumes that all CIOs and all CFOs are male.

    There are women in senior positions these days, and it is possible to form close working relationships that are inter-gender without resorting to competitive sports activities, discussions, or metaphors.

    One of my very best long term working relationships was inter-gender and when we had serious work related issues to sort out we would take a long walk. When we needed to apply intense creative energy, we got more done on a walk than we ever could sitting in a conference room.

  4. It’s a good thing I followed the link for “balls to the wall.” I incorrectly assumed a different connotation…

    On a more serious note, this blog post offers good advice generally applicable to any CXO-CXO relationship.

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