The need for IT leaders to be highly engaged with stakeholders inside and outside of their organisation is a subject that I have covered a number of times in this column. It is also something that I discussed in my book Disrupt IT, and regularly features in the mentoring work I do with CIOs, IT directors and other IT professionals.
High levels of engagement and strong networking skills are traits shared by the most successful CIOs. They understand the need to build strong relationships across the organisation and with partners, suppliers and customers. And, more importantly, they know how to use these relationships to create value and deliver outcomes.
The need for leaders to be well connected is not new, however; knowing how to build and use relationships has always been essential for any leader to be successful. But in the past, IT leaders have been able to get away with not engaging with their stakeholders, as they could rely on IT's role as the organisation's technology gatekeeper to exert control and influence over every technology decision and investment made by the business. And, for most businesses, technology was primarily used so support internal or inward facing activities so there were fewer stakeholders to deal with and their interest in IT tended to be quite low.
But the role of technology is changing; in the digital world technology is increasingly being used in customer facing areas and to enable new products, services and revenue streams. And, as a result, other executives and functions are becoming more involved in technology decisions. Whereas in the past the CIO would have had the final say on every technology investment their company made, this is no longer a given. IT leaders cannot rely on their job title alone to give them authority over every technology decision or, in some cases, to even be involved or consulted in deciding what devices, software, vendors, etc. their organisation uses.
And people outside of the business also have an interest in its technology solutions and services, with customers, partners and suppliers all potentially using or relying on the organisation's apps, data, systems, etc. Hence, whether they like it or not, IT leaders now have many more stakeholders to deal with and they all have an opinion about the organisation's technology capability.
And this is why it has never been more important for IT leaders to be well connected inside and outside of the organisation. It is no longer possible to be an effective CIO if you are not highly engaged with all of your stakeholders. The modern IT leader has to be a social animal; they have to spend increasing amounts of their time building, developing and using connections with stakeholders across the business and beyond. And in this context I mean social in its broadest sense: CIOs need to connect with people in-person and online to grow their personal network; they need to use every channel available to them to establish, develop and use relationships.
The CIO no longer has the power to just say no. They have to influence, shape and guide the technology investments made by other executives to ensure the result is an integrated, secure and robust platform. But they can only influence, shape and guide their peers if they engage with them. And the CIO also has to understand the needs of the organisation’s customers if they are going to help create solutions that will meet those needs. But they will only build this understanding if they spend time with customers. In other words, IT leaders have to get themselves connected to internal and external stakeholders if they are to provide the technology leadership their organisation needs to succeed in the digital world.
But networking, building and developing relationships, and using connections to influence stakeholders are all skills in their own right. And these are not skills that IT professionals have traditionally been required to have. Recruitment, training and development for IT roles has tended to focus on the technical areas with skills such as relationship management and networking only being required for a minority of IT jobs. Neither are they skills that come naturally for many IT professionals; some CIOs are just not built for this new style of IT leadership. CIOs, however, will have to adapt and learn if they want to have a long-term future as a CIO in the digital world.
Developing these new skills and using them to build and maintain connections cannot be done in a few days or weeks; it is achieved over months and years. CIOs have to invest time, energy and effort to develop their networking skills and to establish relationships with their stakeholders. It has to be done continually; it is not a one-off activity with an end point. Until it becomes an inherent part of how they work, IT leaders will need to schedule time in their diary every week for developing and applying their networking skills.
There is no doubt that there has never been a better time to work in IT but with many more stakeholders and each with increasing demands, there has never been a more challenging time either. Today's IT leaders need many skills and, whilst being highly engaged is just one of them, a well-connected IT leader stands a much better chance of being successful in the digital world.