From spearheading digital transformation initiatives to balancing innovation with day-to-day IT operations, the role of the CIO has never been as central or demanding. Lone gone are the days when you could coast along with solid IT know-how and minimal management skills; now you’re expected to inspire, give guidance to the board and deliver IT that propels the business forward. But what does it take to make that mission a success?
Deloitte’s 2017 Digital Business Study identified a set of leadership attributes needed to drive digital business transformations, including an experimentation mind-set, a risk-taking attitude and a willingness to speak out. Interestingly, these findings chimed with the results of Deloitte’s 2017 Global CIO Survey, which suggested that 81 percent of CIOs were early technology adopters, 75 percent were risk tolerant and 75 percent were willing to tolerate some degree of confrontation.
Obviously, a grasp of technology is important. If you don’t know how existing systems work and understand what’s coming over the horizon, you can’t expect to lead IT. Yet more important might be the ability to package technological developments into a compelling IT vision and the skills to inspire the company as a whole to see it through.
‘I am responsible for providing a vision of what we want to do’ BT Global Services CEO and former CIO Luis Alvarez told CIO UK. ‘For me, the role of a CIO is looking beyond pure technology and looking to the impact these technologies will have in the overall business.’
But while he thinks CIOs need to be inspiring, Alvarez also sounds a note of caution. ‘One of the challenges for CIOs is that you can be very inspirational and understand the CEO needs, but if you don’t deliver it that can then lead to e business failing.’ In other words, the CIO also needs to be someone who is results-oriented and who can deliver – someone accountable both for success and failure.
The CIO’s role demands confidence – sometimes even boldness. In their book ‘Confessions of a Successful CIO: How the Best CIOs tackle their Toughest Business Challenges’, Dan Roberts and Brian Watson draw on the experiences of CIOs in some of the world’s biggest companies, concluding that a successful CIO isn’t afraid to take risks or pitch big ideas when it’s necessary to safeguard their company’s future. These CIOs know how to network and how to speak the board’s language. When the situation demands, they step up and push.
That’s something Stuart Birrell, CIO of Heathrow airport found when driving through a redesign of the airport’s complex IT operating model. ‘You have to give people confidence, both internally and across the wider operation’ he told CIO UK ‘and hope that you’re doing the right thing and that you’re in control.’
Doing so requires emotional intelligence and a level of empathy, not just with the members of your own team but with others in the business.
‘One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is you need to partner with your business colleagues around the organisation’, Jane Moran CIO of Unilever told CIO UK. ‘You need to understand what business problems you’re solving and you need to get your teams to understand those business problems to help craft the solutions.’ It’s not enough for the CIO to speak – they also have to listen. As Moran explains ‘The best ideas come from the most junior people in the organisation. You need to create the operating model so that everyone in your technology organisation has a voice.’
Finally, a successful CIO requires a degree of independence – the ability to balance the rules of IT and corporate culture and the self-belief to break them when they’re holding the business back. Sometimes, this can start with the little things, as Aviva International CIO Fin Goulding explains. ‘What is quite funny is that I don’t own a suit’ he told CIO UK. ‘I was a bit worried about that, but as I started to dress down, which I’ve always done, now other people are doing it. You can actually see you have a shadow as a leader.’ When IT change so often now means cultural change, even seemingly insignificant changes start to mean a lot.