CIO leadership traits: Mastering the art of technology change

February 19, 20198 minute read

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What makes a modern, effective CIO? In many organizations, this is a difficult question to answer. The line between CIO and CTO is often blurred, and not every organization employs both roles. Should a CIO be more of a technologist than a business leader, or the other way around?

Despite the fact that technology is increasingly fundamental to the majority of businesses around the world, there are still variances over the inclusion of CIOs at the board level. Few CIOs are actually full members of their company’s board. For instance, research by CIO UK found that just 29 percent are full members and 51 percent meet with their CEO at least weekly. This may be a result of confusion over the role. In some cases, blame could be aimed at boardrooms that have been slow to change or fearful of technology and its cost and impact on the organization. Regardless, doing nothing about it is not an option.

As CIO UK suggests in its research, nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies operating in 2000 no longer exist today, so no business is immune to disruption. That said, Deloitte research reveals that, between 2011 and 2017, the proportion of companies that had technology-focused board members increased from 10 percent to 17 percent. For high-performing companies (companies that outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index by 10 percent or more for the past three years), the proportion is almost doubled at 32 percent.

What am I really: a CTO or a CIO?

Before diving deeper, let’s solve this identity crisis dilemma. Strictly speaking, a CTO develops the technology strategy for products sold to customers, while a CIO is responsible for the digital infrastructure of a business.

On that basis, you could argue that CTOs are more technical, as they invariably come from development backgrounds, while CIOs are more business oriented. The trouble is not all companies have the luxury of employing both, so in many respects, CIOs and CTOs have to learn fast about both business requirements and new technology solutions.

“It takes a different sort of person to be at the helm,” says Gwen Becknell, Senior Director of EndUser Experience Services within Infrastructure Services at HP, talking about the personality and skills of a CIO. “You need good business sense and some marketing flair. You also need to change the perception of IT to employees. IT needs to be seen as an enabler, and IT teams as people that can solve issues proactively.”

Understanding the relationship between technology and the boardroom

Clearly, there’s a link between understanding the importance of technology at the board level and business success. As Maggie McGhee, director of professional insights at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, writes in Board Agenda, “Embracing technology can be the difference between remaining relevant in their market and being disrupted by new entrants. It represents a significant, and often the leading, business risk that boards need to address.”

Perhaps the problem is twofold. First, technology is still seen as a cost to the business, and so, it will be scrutinized as such. Secondly, CIOs have to rethink how they’re selling themselves and the technology by focusing on business cases, competitive advantage, and cybersecurity.

According to the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2018, CIO influence on executive boards is decreasing, so even those who did have the ear of the CEO and other board members are losing their voice. The rise in shadow IT is partly to blame, with departments bypassing tech teams to install cloud-based apps and services to meet specific departmental requirements. At the board level, this may come across as a disconnect between CIOs and what the workers want, but in reality, it could lead to a security and asset management nightmare.

While this survey also found that “making a success of digital transformation is proving complex with almost 8 in 10 CIOs (78 percent) feeling that their digital strategy is only moderately effective or worse,” there is a need for businesses to be more proactive.

Traditionally, tech teams have been reactive. CIOs need to be given the reins to reduce complexity, forge strong strategies that utilize the latest data-driven capabilities, and focus on not just solving issues but creating opportunities.

Taking the road to transformation

As Patrick Fisher from the Technology Practice Group wrote, “Companies that best use technology to create competitive advantage will win.”

He goes on to talk about Goldman Sachs and how the firm’s Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein once said, “Goldman Sachs is a technology firm,” pointing to the fact that, at the time, the company employed more engineers than companies like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Perhaps the idea that every company needs to be an IT or software company is coming true. If that’s the case, you’d think boardrooms would want technology expertise at the top table on a permanent basis.

Good CIOs don’t just talk technology—they talk about how technology can impact the business and even find a competitive advantage.

“Today’s CIO has rightfully assumed a much more prominent place in the strategic thinking of the business, not simply enabling other members of the C-suite to achieve their vision, but rather actively setting the agenda for the future of the digital enterprise,” says Geoff Webb, vice president of strategy at Micro Focus, in Forbes. “It’s an exciting if challenging time. Moving forward, CIOs will finally have the opportunity to focus on the real meaning of their title—chief information officer.”

The idea of a CIO being a technology and business agent is not that new, but as an agent of change, the CIO is encountering new territory. The efficiencies and opportunities offered by increased automation and data-driven analytics, for example, means that CIOs and their organizations have a target to work toward. If they want to take advantage of machine learning and AI capabilities, current systems and processes will need updating—and, in some cases, a complete transformation.

It’s a potential minefield of problems to solve but also a goldmine of opportunity if you get it right. Boards need to realize that CIOs are the only people who can really drive change and orchestrate the transformation required to improve employee experiences, resulting in increased productivity and satisfaction.

Business professionals working

Another ever-present consideration is cybersecurity. Not all organizations employ a specialist chief information security officer (CISO), which means CIOs will most likely be required to build security policies and implement plans.

Becknell of HP says there’s now “a big shift to cybersecurity focus” within IT leadership. While business leaders are starting to recognize this—38 percent of companies bring security experts into meetings at an early stage of new business opportunities, according to Accenture—more needs to be done to ensure cybersecurity practices are adhered to (especially with the growth in shadow IT) and employees are empowered and not hindered.

Becknell adds that delivering technology to enable employee experience is key. In other words, you need to take into consideration employee views on which tools and technologies work best for each role. It’s about taking control to ensure the organization has the ability to focus on its core strengths.

Become a strategic thinker and doer

How can CIOs transform their roles? They need to start by being strategic—not just on improving IT infrastructures and usability but also in finding ways to help the company reduce costs, increase flexibility, and drive innovation. How they achieve these things and the methods for measuring those things are changing.

CIO Magazine suggests that empathy is “one of the most critical competencies in the execution of leadership,” in its list of top traits for CIOs. Others include dominance (to be tempered by empathy), self-awareness, flexibility, and insightfulness.

To be fair, these traits could be applied to most leadership roles—it’s technology knowledge that distinguishes the CIO. For example, understanding how data could impact an entire organization and feed systems and processes that enhance production and streamline routes to market has a huge benefit. The question is whether CIOs can turn the potential technology into a robust business strategy and then sell it to the board.

“It’s not so much about specific SLAs now; it’s more around employee feedback and business outcomes,” says Becknell. “The board is not so much concerned that the network reported 99 percent uptime but what did that network actually achieve in terms of creating new customer insights or helping employees develop new ideas? This is the new judgment.”

Security pros working

HP, explains Becknell, has taken its own medicine. By going through the process of implementing its own Device as a Service (DaaS) solution, she has witnessed first-hand how the challenges facing CIOs today can be overcome.

Multi-OS device proliferation, in particular, raises potential security issues, and yet, it still requires a business case. The decision process is elevated through the CIO to the COO, where potential security impact and hardware failure, management complexity, and upgrade costs become business critical reasons to act.

“That’s the benefit of DaaS, especially for non-IT companies,” says Becknell. “Providing hardware as a service means PCs and devices are just cared for completely, end-to-end, with repair and replace policies. This includes HP TechPulse, a predictive analytics tool that can watch over every user and warn of issues before they occur. It’s about improving user experience and peace of mind.”

For a CIO, it’s also about taking away potential pain points that can distract from the bigger goals, because the job just gets bigger. As Deloitte suggests in its research, “Organizations typically expect CIOs to do more than keep the lights on and the trains running … Yes, CIOs should build and maintain solid back-end core systems, but they also need to leverage digital technologies to streamline business processes, engage employees and customers, and drive new value-generating business models.”

For many organizations, business strategy and technology are inseparable; business leaders understand the influence of both. So, now, do CIOs.

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