Does your company have a Chief Information Officer (CIO)? Do you really need one at a small or mid-size business? What exactly is a CIO, other than the person who determines pay raises in the IT department?

Many times, especially in fast-growing companies, the IT leader becomes “CIO” by default. He or she knows the most about the inner workings of the company’s technology, has the longest tenure or the best people management skills.

Unfortunately, none of these skills makes a person capable of functioning as a C-level representative for technology. In fact, IT professionals rising through the technology ranks typically receive very little career development training and mentoring that would prepare them for a seat at the executive table, let alone a position responsible for creating a vision for how technology could help meet business goals. Business leaders often complain that IT can’t seem to take the company to the next level without realizing why -- a frustrating situation for all involved.

So what exactly is a CIO and why would you need one?

Technology joined the “C-suite” when business leaders realized technology is an integral component of business success. Let’s consider a scenario that may be all too familiar to a high-growth business.

A company works for months (or even years) to bring a new product to market or to change the sales methodology, only to get blindsided when the competition unveils new capabilities made possible by superior technology. The other company changed the entire competitive landscape by leapfrogging the industry in terms of capabilities, all by making better use of today’s technology.

Once upon a time, IT was viewed purely as a support function charged with enabling staff to perform more efficiently. Managing and maintaining computer and communications equipment was the role.

That was then, this is now. Today’s marketplace demands that companies seek a competitive advantage from strategic technology deployment. More and more companies are finding that charging the IT department only with maintenance and oversight leaves them falling behind competitors who have proactively used IT to drive the business.

Unfortunately, most CIOs and IT leaders aren’t prepared to manage strategic initiatives, drive revenue or create value. This is the role of a true C-level technology leader.

Technology can help drive the business through anything from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to customer relationship management (CRM) programs to simple mobile workforce support. The common thread is that the initiative is designed to deliver a competitive upper hand by aligning IT with business plans and objectives, and using technology to enable and even supercharge those strategic plans.

So how do you get there from here? For technology leaders, especially in smaller or mid-market companies, the transformation from support role to strategic business leader is a difficult one that’s easier said than done. Mentoring can help. Look for mentors at every stage of your career, considering CEOs and CFOs, as well as more senior technology people. In a smaller company this often means looking outside the company.

A true CIO brings vision and innovation to the role which requires both deep technology expertise and business acumen. Staying on top of emerging technology is critical because your competitors are.

One way to accelerate the process, especially in a smaller organization without a lot of payroll flexibility, is to bring in an experienced CIO to determine strategic opportunities on a project basis. Ideally this person can develop a technology vision while also providing mentoring to the senior IT team, helping the company jumpstart results.

Another key to making the transition is interacting with other departments to truly understand the business, its competitors and its financial goals. In order for technology to help deliver business objectives, the leader must understand the company outside of their department.

Companies who seek a competitive advantage from IT need to commit the resources -- including the appropriate personnel -- to ensure the CIO is responsible for more than equipment maintenance. Otherwise, the CIO will never become a core member of the senior management team and opportunities will go unrealized, or even unrecognized.

If you don’t currently have a true CIO position in your business, the good news is that you have an untapped opportunity. If you’ve been gaining market share and growing the business without leveraging technology as part of your company’s competitive toolkit, the odds are that performance can be even better going forward. If you haven’t been gaining market share and growing your business perhaps the strategic use of technology led by a truly business-oriented leader is the piece you are missing.

Bill Huber is a Regional Practice Leader for Tatum LLC. Tatum is the nation’s largest executive services firm, providing financial and technology leadership nationwide.