The message is coming in loud and clear from every corner of the tech and business sectors, from every career coach, hiring manager and trusted peer: IT pros who are serious about advancement need to think and speak strategically.
Keeping the lights on? Yawn. Transforming business processes? No-brainer. What organisations need in an IT leader now is a business strategist who can serve as a trusted colleague of, rather than merely a tech adviser to, C-suite executives.
"There has been a great movement toward strategic CIOs as executive teams recognise the crucial role that IT plays," says John Baldoni, chairman of the leadership development practice at N2growth, a US management consultancy.
Having being invited to the table, IT leaders need to contribute more than just operational expertise, says Baldoni, who has written several books on leadership. "It's not just 'What kind of tech solutions can I present?' - it's knowing the mission, vision and values of the company, understanding its strategic imperative."
The message is getting through to IT professionals. In survey of 489 IT professionals conducted in August and September of 2013, respondents said the top three non-IT skills that they believe will make them most valuable are leadership and strategic thinking (cited by 24% of those polled), connecting with customers (16%) and analytical thinking (15%).
Moreover, 52% of the respondents said they believe the skill set that will best advance their IT careers is a business or soft skill, 32% said it would be an IT or technical skill, 12% said a skill that's specific to their industries, and 4% said they didn't know.
Create your own opportunities
You have ideas, but how do you bring them to the attention of the people who matter? IT leaders share some tips:
• Raise your hand early and often for special projects and, once on the team, try to inch your role closer to the business side, advises Tim Peterson, EVP and CIO at Wellmark.
• Take advantage of departmental promotions, staff changes and reorganisations. Peterson recently realigned Wellmark's IT department around multidisciplinary teams, creating a good opportunity for individuals to enhance their strategic roles.
• If your company has a mentorship program, use it as an opportunity to forge a close relationship with a senior thought leader, says Tom Van Winkle, director of information security at Alliance Data's Retail Services division. If not, be brave and initiate one-on-one conversations with higher-ups to vet your ideas.
• Ask to take part in professional development programs and attend industry conferences. If you do get to take advantage of such opportunities, be proactive in sharing what you learn. Debbie Madden, former CEO at software programming house Cyrus Innovation, was pleased when an employee who'd attended off-premises training set up an informal brown-bag lunch to share his knowledge. Such sessions are a good way to interact with business colleagues you might otherwise not encounter frequently.
• Fill a gap. Look around at what's not being done in your company - then do it, advises Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia. Particularly in small or fast-growing companies, "there are lots of gaps in terms of what needs to be done and nobody doing it." If you worry you're not fully qualified, "fake it until you make it," she says.
That said, IT professionals can be forgiven for wondering how they're supposed to add "articulate strategic imperatives" to a to-do list already overflowing with managing their teams, interacting with business partners, wrangling with vendors, budgeting, benchmarking and, as always, spinning up systems and services efficiently and effectively.
And even once they do manage to shift their mindset from functional to strategic, how do they convey that transformation, short of busting into the boardroom, Buddy the Elf-style, and shouting their ideas to a table of stunned executives?
We spoke to several seasoned CIOs to discover when they first emerged as business strategists and how they share that vision, both with their IT staffers and their C-suite colleagues.
The good news, the CIOs agree, is that IT pros are well positioned to learn how to both think strategically and speak strategically.
"Tech is actually a great career for strategic perspective," says Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia, a Montreal-based firm that develops customer loyalty programs for clients worldwide.
"I always said, 'I don't want to work in IT' - I was extremely interested in business processes, in how a business functions," says Doniz, who came to Aimia from Procter & Gamble Canada, where she was CIO. "But my path led me through tech, and it ended up being a good fit." Particularly in global organisations where technology touches every department and function, "you can see every part of the company - logistics, R&D, sales, international." That perspective, Doniz says, is a crucial element to building strategic insight.
Know what the business really wants
CIOs and career specialists agree that IT leaders can hardly be blamed for their lack of focus on strategic vision, given the way they've typically functioned within the organisation up until recently.
"Historically, CIOs have been recognised and incentivised by technical achievements and a technical focus," observes Tim Peterson, executive vice president and CIO at Wellmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield provider doing business in Iowa and South Dakota. "That hasn't encouraged a great deal of business, market or industry focus."
The easiest way to change that, say Peterson and other CIOs, is to flip it on its head and always think from a business, rather than a technological, point of view.
About nine years ago, Beesley was part of a team trying to launch a business transformation program for a particular division of Smiths. "The senior group colleague on the business side just could not understand what we were doing for him, and why," Beesley recalls. "I felt like I was banging my head against the wall."
Away from the office, Beesley was able to reflect on the situation, and he realised the miscommunication was happening around the way the project's outcomes were being described. "It was being pitched as a supply chain transformation, underpinned by ERP, with an opportunity to reduce headcount by eliminating touchpoints," he says - a description that wasn't resonating with the senior manager.
"I realised I had to turn that whole thing on its head and use business terms to say, 'This is going to work for you in this way and deliver these benefits'," Beesley says. By enumerating the process improvements and business outcomes, he was able to get the buy-in he was looking for. Lesson learned: "If you're feeling frustrated," he says, "you need to step back and say, 'What am I not communicating here?'"
To the adage "Don't lead with technology, lead with the business problem," Doniz would add a trailer: "Don't let the business side lead with technology either." It's an increasing problem as technology pervades every aspect of the organisation and beckons as a cure-all for every corporate challenge. "Don't let the business side say, 'Let's do something with Facebook' or 'Let's digitise'," Doniz elaborates. "Get them to state the problem, state the goal, then fit the technology to the solution. That's strategic."
Jim Forbes, CTO at University Health Network in Toronto, agrees that IT needs to be vigilant when the business side comes asking for a specific technology. "You need to ask the question, 'What are you really trying to solve?' You need to get closer to the business problem, and the way you do that is to keep drilling down and down to find out what they really want," he advises.
When managers at University Health Network said they wanted to "improve the patient experience," Forbes and his team qualified that by examining the entire process to identify which specific elements of the patient experience were subpar. "We went through and made sure we really understood their requirements," he says.
How to speak with presence
Your strategic insights aren't worth anything if you can't convey them with authority. Here's how to nail a boardroom presentation on the first try, in 10 steps:
1. Think about your message beforehand. Remind yourself that you know your stuff.
2. To begin, stand up or sit up straight.
3. Smile all around as you take a deep breath.
4. Start with the hook of your presentation, i.e., why you are speaking today.
5. Assume a neutral but authoritative tone.
6. Pause for emphasis when making key points, then explain them.
7. Summarise your key points in your conclusion.
8. Include a call to action, if appropriate.
9. Acknowledge tough questions openly.
10. Don't be afraid to say you don't know. Promise to deliver an answer at a later date.
One key concern turned out to be the time patients were left in common areas or examination rooms waiting for doctors or test results - a challenging situation to improve, since it involves multiple departments and several different staffers. The solution is a smartboard application that shows nurses and clinicians how long patients have been waiting in any one area and tracks that against industry benchmarks.
Know your industry - and others
As crucial as knowing the business is, it's only a first step, say Peterson and other CIOs. To be truly strategic, IT pros need to fully understand their industry and even cross-industry forces that will eventually impact their companies - not an easy task, Peterson points out, in complicated industries like healthcare that are roiling with change.
For midlevel IT staffers who aspire to rise through the ranks, that means homework, everything from reading trade publications and attending industry conferences to asking to be mentored by an appropriate executive.
"Ask questions and get involved," Peterson advises. "Even if you're on what you might view as a pretty technical component of a project, try to understand the business context of the requests being made of you. What are the senior executives' business goals for the project? How will the paying customers feel?"
And how will your industry - and beyond - react? Strategy means anticipating where your market is going and identifying the technological elements of that change, and also contributing IT perspective from other industries. "If senior leaders, and I include myself in this group, aren't thinking about how technology is being applied in relevant ways in other industries and other companies, we're being shortsighted," Peterson says. Just one example: As healthcare continues its customer-centric reform, it should take cues from the retail and financial services industries, he says.
Talk strategy with senior stakeholders
All of your hard-learned strategic vision won't count for anything if you can't communicate it effectively to the right people, and that can be a challenge for IT folks.
"Anyone in a tech field probably hasn't spent as much time on public speaking as someone in marketing," says N2growth's Baldoni. "But the higher you go, the more comfortable you need to be speaking on your feet and speaking in public."
Just who are the "right people"? Beesley advises casting a wide net. "You need to have networks of people within the business who understand you, and whom you understand," he says. This kind of relationship-building should be ongoing, not a last-minute effort you engage in only when you're in need of support. "If you take the time beforehand to build up trust, to have lots of ongoing conversations, then when you come along with bigger projects, it will be easier to build a powerful business case," he says.
Tom Van Winkle, director of information security at Alliance Data's Retail Services division in Columbus, Ohio, agrees that it's critical for IT people to socialise their ideas with senior decision-makers - not simply their immediate managers, but up the chain of command and throughout the organisation. "You need to take personal initiative to engage in relationship-building," he says.
Van Winkle speaks from experience. He started out at Alliance working in the internal audit department, where he learned to look at all aspects of the business - including IT - with a critical eye. So when he transitioned to business security, he came with ideas for how the department could be re-engineered to better serve the needs of the company.
Though his immediate manager was only "lukewarm," Van Winkle talked up his ideas with senior managers whenever possible -- through mentor relationships, by volunteering to work on special projects where key stakeholders were involved, and in informal conversations he set up one-on-one.
The end result: Van Winkle is now in the manager's seat and his plan for realigning IT is well underway.
Talk strategy with your IT staff
Brilliant as you are, you're only one person. To truly deliver strategic value to the organisation, the entire IT staff needs to be energised in that direction.
"In order to create a vision, the staff needs to be part of the process," says Van Winkle. "I try to engage my managers in the planning process, which helps get people out of firefighting mode and take a step back to think strategically." Specifically, Van Winkle found that elucidating a two- or three-year strategic plan that addresses resources, personnel and tools helped staffers to shift their mindsets.
"There is a leadership component to being a strategic thinker," says Aimia's Doniz. "You need to have that people skill to bring people along with you." Especially in new, hyperconnected organisations where reporting lines are fuzzy, employees will need more than a simple direct-report relationship before throwing their support behind a strategic initiative.
"It's corny to say," Doniz says, "but it's true: A leader is not somebody with a title; a leader is someone people want to follow."