7 tips to become a better CIO
CIOs have long been viewed by many colleagues as second-string executives. Now is the time for IT leaders to expand their role, and to assert their unique vision and value.
Being a CIO has never been more important. Major IT trends, including security and privacy protection, cloud computing, machine learning, and remote workforces, as well as complying with an avalanche of regulatory mandates, have elevated the CIO post to a level of importance equal to, or even exceeding, that of fellow C-level executives. Unfortunately, within many enterprises, however, management’s perception of CIOs remains firmly embedded in the past.
It’s up to CIOs themselves to expand their role in the enterprise by moving into business areas once considered off-limits or, until recently, didn’t even exist. “Gone are the days of the CIO being a back-office IT cost manager,” declares Chris Scheefer, vice president of intelligent industry at technology services and consulting firm Capgemini Americas. “Today’s CIO must adapt and become a business strategist, a digital innovator, and an orchestrator for business.”
Are you up to the task? If so, here are seven steps that will help you build a bigger, and more rewarding, role for yourself.
1. Position yourself as a change agent
From front office to back office, the CIO needs to operationalize strategy and be a change agent, driving new skills and talent into the business. “The role of the CIO, through applied digital technologies, is to build resiliency, organizational agility, and become the engine to scale new technologies and innovations into a sustainable competitive advantage,” Scheefer says.
The key to success, Scheefer believes, is to become the C-suite’s vehicle for driving business strategy and transformation at pace and scale. “This means becoming more than a mechanism for technology project delivery and management,” he notes. It’s about bringing an outcomes- and value-oriented perspective to the job, along with a solid plan to activate the strategy holistically.”
Too often, CIOs work reactively, waiting for the business to come to them. Proactive engagement and building an IT organization that’s integrated into front-office operations is critical to success, Scheefer says. This means embedding and integrating teams on key strategic priorities and supplying shared metrics to their business stakeholders to ensure a successful partnership.
2. Focus on outcomes, not technologies
Many, perhaps even most, executive team members aren’t particularly interested in technology, yet all are interested in learning how innovation can benefit the enterprise. “Don’t hide in the basement,” advises John Abel, CIO at network equipment company Extreme Networks. “The worst thing to do as CIO is to not engage with executive stakeholders.”
Abel suggests creating and leading monthly meetings with the executive team to bring transparency to IT planning and operations. “To play a bigger role, a good first step is to ensure your discussions are relevant to the people you’re talking to,” he says. Know what the hot-button items are and bring them to the table for dialogue and input. “This will allow the CIO to be better positioned in the company and more likely to be included in the decision-making process,” Abel explains.
3. Build business value
When IT begins delivering value in terms of profits earned rather than simple cost reductions, colleagues will begin viewing the CIO in an entirely new and positive light.
“It will change the perception of the role of the CIO,” says Brian Jackson, a research director in the CIO practice at technology research and advisory company Info-Tech Research Group. “The more the CIO can support the business with key technology capabilities, the more peers will link their success to forming a strong relationship with the CIO.”
The CIO gets a seat at the main decision-making table when IT is mature enough to deliver on initiatives that directly improve the organization’s business model, Jackson says. “If the CIO can bring in new revenue, provide customer-facing touchpoints, and drive data-driven decision making, then they are going to become integral to enterprise strategy.”
CIOs should also consider participating in professional associations that will allow them to meet with their peers. “It can be especially insightful to discuss challenges and opportunities with other CIOs in the same industry,” Jackson notes. “It’s one way to discover some shortcuts to solving problems.”
4. Be open, upfront, and honest
To build a bigger role, CIOs should clearly articulate precisely what they can and can’t do with the resources at their disposal. “Learning to present cyber needs through a risk management lens, with a clear financial outlook, is a great place to start,” suggests Tommy Gardner, CTO of government technology and services provider HP Federal. “The combination of a strong expert opinion backed by data is a powerful one and will elevate the CIO role.”
Gardner says that CIOs also need to educate the C-suite on the fact that IT and security are continuously evolving and need to be constantly evaluated and supported from the top. “By making this an open conversation, and showing the ROI over time, CIOs can better position themselves and their teams as integral to the organization’s operations.”
5. Seek external advice
Relationships are built on listening, says Rebecca Fox, group CIO at security consulting firm NCC Group. Therefore, never overlook seeking external, unbiased advice when facing a particularly difficult challenge. “Getting help to create that roadmap is really helpful,” Fox notes. “It’s also more difficult for senior business leaders to dismiss external advice — with it, they are more likely to take action.”
Building a network of fellow IT leaders to frequently interact with is key, says Prasad Ramakrishnan, CIO of SaaS provider Freshworks. “In IT, it’s not only about what you know, but also who you know,” he observes. “For example, if you need to bring in someone to solve a very niche problem, who do you know to get the job done right?”
Ramakrishnan suggests participating in industry forums and encouraging team members to participate as well. “The collective learnings from these industry interactions can bring you together and provide you with the tools needed to solve business problems.”
6. Aim for agility
Emerging technologies and evolving customer and employee demands have forever changed the CIO’s role. “Today, the CIO is truly embedded,” says Florian Roth, chief digital and information officer at business application and technology provider SAP SE. “The mandate is to be agile; to actively design and deploy intelligent and sustainable technologies.”
Roth notes that his mandate has changed dramatically in recent years. “From a classic IT manager to a strategic partner who actively shapes the intelligent and sustainable company and digital transformation,” he explains. “The role of the CIO has shifted from efficiency-driver to growth-driver, from system provider focused on managing traditional IT operations, to strategic decision-maker shaping and creating digital transformation.”
Roth advises CIOs to take stock of gaps that need to be filled, including talent and technology, and to prioritize technologies that will drive the enterprise’s strategic vision forward. “Businesses are being pulled in many different directions and there’s an endless number of opportunities for technology to support broader company goals,” he says.
7. Sharpen your strategy
“What we tend to do with strategy is to make it long and cumbersome,” says Christine Ashton, CIO of SUSE, an open-source solutions provider. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. “If you look at some of the biggest tech companies today, what they’re good at is re-running their strategy process at shorter intervals,” she notes.
The pandemic has driven home the point that strategies can be constraining and shouldn’t limit the need to be agile. “It’s not about focusing on everything all at once, but rather focusing on the value levers that matter most to the business,” Ashton says.
Instead of waiting a year or more to see whether a particular strategy is working, Ashton recommends running frequent and sharp strategy exercises. “By taking an end-to-end, value-based approach, you can rank projected results on how they contribute to closing your strategy gap overall,” she says. “In this way you are in a much better position to control scope and deliver real benefits faster and in phases.”
Author: John Edwards