We spoke to a range of experts who suggest ways that CIOs can build inflence by putting the business, their personal brand and their staff front and centre.
With over 35 years in IT, Jim Love, CIO & Chief Content Officer at IT World and author of Digital Transformation in the First Person has a unique perspective, covering both IT and business. "For a great many years, CIOs struggled to be thought of as strategic thinkers", he says. "A few pioneers succeeded but not without struggle. Most encountered what I’ve termed the 'silicon ceiling' - a clear divide between the business and IT which kept CIOs from being seen as business leaders."
Julie Lynch, Principal at Uncommon Consulting agrees that being embedded deeply within the business is key. "Strong IT leaders not only understand the business the company is in, they keep a finger on the pulse of where the business is going. They speak the business language, they network with others in the industry and they articulate IT strategy against the backdrop of organizational direction. Read industry news, attend conferences, go on ride-alongs with product development, sales and service departments."
Although the idea of hanging out with sales may be anathema to many IT executives, this is where the rubber hits the road, and often where frustrations about systems can be at their highest. Having friends, or at least acquaintances, across the business makes it easier to keep your finger on the pulse and understand sticking points when they come up.
For CIOs starting in new roles, Bridget Gray, Managing Director of Harvey Nash recommends doing your negotiation about having a seat on the executive team even before you accept the role, to ensure that the stage is set for success from the outset.
"It has never been more important that CIO’s sit on the executive team and this theme of declining involvement is concerning. I advise CIO’s to negotiate this into new roles and their success rate in attaining a seat at the table is refreshingly high. An organisation can’t really say they are truly committed to transformation and innovation and not have the CIO on the exec. It tells me that they may not be as committed as they say if they are resistant."
More than that, companies that don't have the concept of digital transformation at the forefron of their overall strategy will likely soon find themselves sidelined, which means budget cuts and makes life difficult for everyone within the organisation.
The next area that is key is ensuring your people skills are up to scratch. Sundararajan says "Most CIOs have grown-up with a restricted job role that did not require them to go out and speak, especially in front of a group of business leaders, stakeholders and large audiences. However, now they are needed by the organisation to educate about technology and its relevance to businesses, in simple language. They have to cultivate basic skills in conveying technology messages to diverse audiences, interact with different functions, try to understand and adopt different ways of thinking so they can build empathy. This will have a greater influence within the organisation around perception of the CIO and IT."
It's not just educating the business that is critical, it's educating yourself. In a world moving at an ever faster pace, having a philosophy of lifelong and continuous education is the right mindset for both the CIO and reports.
Bridget Gray notes "I am seeing the value in specific learning, depending on what a business is focussed on. For example when you see a company that is going through significant investment in artificial intelligence, and you see that their CIO takes part in further learning, for example an AI course with the likes of MIT Sloan, this tells the market and business that they are a committed digital leader. Not only does this type of learning, deepen the expertise of the CIO in relevant technologies but it tells us that these professionals are committed to staying current, knowledgeable and ahead of the game."
The final area is to look at your team holistically. How do they engage with the organisation? How engaged are they within the team? And how are your succession plans looking?
Lynch points out that the team you work with are often the ones who are most visible within the organisation and therefore directly reflect on the organisation's perception of you. "Your team members’ client relations skills and personal attitude are as important as their technical skill. Their actions are a direct reflection on you as a leader. Take the time to set and share the vision for your team, articulate the culture you expect to build and sustain, communicate individual goals and expectations, manage performance and come together as a team to connect as human beings and celebrate wins.
Helen Hall, Partner at Executive Search firm, Derwent underscores that developing your team is also critical to your own ability to move ahead. "The increased demand for talent together with the rapidly changing and evolving technology environment have heightened the critical importance of succession planning for the role of CIO. Succession planning enables the CIO to develop and retain their key staff, offering meaningful growth and career pathways to hone their leadership, technology and business capabilities. Importantly this should provide the CIO with increased opportunity for their own career. The risk appetite of a CEO to move their CIO into a new role without strong successors in place is low."
In a nutshell; you aren't going anywhere if they aren't confident someone else can do the job as well as you do.
At the same time IT departments are becoming smaller and more agile. Love notes "Where IT was once an army, it is now moving to flatter structures, more agile processes where the CIO strategic consultant to the business and a coach to an increasingly flat IT structure. CIOs are building agile cultures in their own right, realizing that this is the only way to keep up with the pace of change." It also makes it more important than ever to have the right people on board and ensure they are completely engaged and dedicated to the mission.
Keeping the IT team engaged at a business level might take some prodding, however. Sundarajan says "In my conversations with CIOs, I hear them saying 'They don’t want to come out of the basement, they are happy coding rather than talking to people'. This attitude can not sustain in the new world. CIOs need to send their teams into social skills and leadership workshops so that they understand the benefits and importance of social skills and feel equipped to get out of their comfort zone and speak with business, clients and even the CEO. Building confidence and empowering them with greater responsibility and accountability will free up CIOs time to focus on innovation and transformation side of business and IT, at the same time eliminating the 'single point of failure' with the IT organisation."
All of this takes time and effort but the dividends invariably pay off both at a personal and company level. Jim Love sums it up nicely. "Digtal transformation started with those companies where the end product could be digital e.g music, photography, entertainment, services like entertainment and travel agencies and of course, publishing. It started there, but it didn’t stop there. Soon other companies like Amazon, Uber and Air BnB proved that the Digital Transformation would affect all companies and all industries. And indeed it has. Today, companies of all kinds look more and more like software companies. In that world, something new has happened. The CIO is poised to not only be a business partner but a real leader."
So, Captain, where will you take your ship and crew in 2020?