The message is coming in loud and clear from every corner of the tech and business sectors, from every career coach, hiring manager and trusted peer: IT pros who are serious about advancement need to think and speak strategically.
Keeping the lights on? Yawn. Transforming business processes? No-brainer. What organizations need in an IT leader now is a business strategist who can serve as a trusted colleague of, rather than merely a tech adviser to, C-suite executives.
"There has been a great movement toward strategic CIOs as executive teams recognize the crucial role that IT plays," says John Baldoni, chairman of the leadership development practice at N2growth, a Wilmington, Del.-based management consultancy.
Having being invited to the table, IT leaders need to contribute more than just operational expertise, says Baldoni, who has written several books on leadership. "It's not just 'What kind of tech solutions can I present?' it's knowing the mission, vision and values of the company, understanding its strategic imperative."
The message is getting through to IT professionals. In an exclusive Computerworld survey of 489 IT professionals conducted in August and September of 2013, respondents said the top three non-IT skills that they believe will make them most valuable are leadership and strategic thinking (cited by 24% of those polled), connecting with customers (16%) and analytical thinking (15%).
Moreover, 52% of the respondents said they believe the skill set that will best advance their IT careers is a business or soft skill, 32% said it would be an IT or technical skill, 12% said a skill that's specific to their industries, and 4% said they didn't know.
That said, IT professionals can be forgiven for wondering how they're supposed to add "articulate strategic imperatives" to a to-do list already overflowing with managing their teams, interacting with business partners, wrangling with vendors, budgeting, benchmarking and, as always, spinning up systems and services efficiently and effectively.
And even once they do manage to shift their mindset from functional to strategic, how do they convey that transformation, short of busting into the boardroom, Buddy the Elf-style, and shouting their ideas to a table of stunned executives?
Computerworld interviewed several seasoned CIOs to discover when they first emerged as business strategists and how they share that vision, both with their IT staffers and their C-suite colleagues.
The good news, the CIOs agree, is that IT pros are well positioned to learn how to both think strategically and speak strategically.
Create Your Own Opportunities
You have ideas, but how do you bring them to the attention of the people who matter? IT leaders share some tips:
* Raise your hand early and often for special projects and, once on the team, try to inch your role closer to the business side, advises Tim Peterson, EVP and CIO at Wellmark.
* Once on a project, don't be shy about approaching key stakeholders directly. Ask questions, share your ideas and solicit their opinions, says Stuart Beesley, interim CIO at Smiths Group.
* Take advantage of departmental promotions, staff changes and reorganizations. Peterson recently realigned Wellmark's IT department around multidisciplinary teams, creating a good opportunity for individuals to enhance their strategic roles.
* If your company has a mentorship program, use it as an opportunity to forge a close relationship with a senior thought leader, says Tom Van Winkle, director of information security at Alliance Data's Retail Services division. If not, be brave and initiate one-on-one conversations with higher-ups to vet your ideas.
* Ask to take part in professional development programs and attend industry conferences. If you do get to take advantage of such opportunities, be proactive in sharing what you learn. Debbie Madden, former CEO at software programming house Cyrus Innovation, was pleased when an employee who'd attended off-premises training set up an informal brown-bag lunch to share his knowledge. Such sessions are a good way to interact with business colleagues you might otherwise not encounter frequently.
* Fill a gap. Look around at what's not being done in your company -- then do it, advises Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia. Particularly in small or fast-growing companies, "there are lots of gaps in terms of what needs to be done and nobody doing it." If you worry you're not fully qualified, "fake it until you make it," she says.
"Tech is actually a great career for strategic perspective," says Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia, a Montreal-based firm that develops customer loyalty programs for clients worldwide.
"I always said, 'I don't want to work in IT' -- I was extremely interested in business processes, in how a business functions," says Doniz, who came to Aimia from Procter & Gamble Canada, where she was CIO. "But my path led me through tech, and it ended up being a good fit." Particularly in global organizations where technology touches every department and function, "you can see every part of the company -- logistics, R&D, sales, international." That perspective, Doniz says, is a crucial element to building strategic insight.
Know What the Business Really Wants
CIOs and career specialists agree that IT leaders can hardly be blamed for their lack of focus on strategic vision, given the way they've typically functioned within the organization up until recently.
"Historically, CIOs have been recognized and incentivized by technical achievements and a technical focus," observes Tim Peterson, executive vice president and CIO at Wellmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield provider doing business in Iowa and South Dakota. "That hasn't encouraged a great deal of business, market or industry focus."
The easiest way to change that, say Peterson and other CIOs, is to flip it on its head and always think from a business, rather than a technological, point of view.
Stuart Beesley, interim CIO at Smiths Group, a global technology company headquartered in London, remembers well the first time that point was hammered home for him.
About nine years ago, Beesley was part of a team trying to launch a business transformation program for a particular division of Smiths. "The senior group colleague [on the business side] just could not understand what we were doing for him, and why," Beesley recalls. "I felt like I was banging my head against the wall."
I had to turn that whole thing on its head and use business terms to say, 'This is going to work for you in this way and deliver these benefits.' Stuart Beesley, interim CIO, Smiths Group
Away from the office, Beesley was able to reflect on the situation, and he realized the miscommunication was happening around the way the project's outcomes were being described. "It was being pitched as a supply chain transformation, underpinned by ERP, with an opportunity to reduce headcount by eliminating touchpoints," he says -- a description that wasn't resonating with the senior manager.
"I realized I had to turn that whole thing on its head and use business terms to say, 'This is going to work for you in this way and deliver these benefits,'" Beesley says. By enumerating the process improvements and business outcomes, he was able to get the buy-in he was looking for. Lesson learned: "If you're feeling frustrated," he says, "you need to step back and say, 'What am I not communicating here?'"
To the adage "Don't lead with technology, lead with the business problem," Doniz would add a trailer: "Don't let the business side lead with technology either." It's an increasing problem as technology pervades every aspect of the organization and beckons as a cure-all for every corporate challenge. "Don't let the business side say, 'Let's do something with Facebook' or 'Let's digitize,'" Doniz elaborates. "Get them to state the problem, state the goal, then fit the technology to the solution. That's strategic." (For more tips on talking to the business, see "Tough Questions, Better Outcomes," below.)
Jim Forbes, CTO at University Health Network in Toronto, agrees that IT needs to be vigilant when the business side comes asking for a specific technology. "You need to ask the question, 'What are you really trying to solve?' You need to get closer to the business problem, and the way you do that is to keep drilling down and down to find out what they really want," he advises.
When managers at University Health Network said they wanted to "improve the patient experience," Forbes and his team qualified that by examining the entire process to identify which specific elements of the patient experience were subpar. "We went through and made sure we really understood their requirements," he says.
One key concern turned out to be the time patients were left in common areas or examination rooms waiting for doctors or test results -- a challenging situation to improve, since it involves multiple departments and several different staffers. The solution is a smartboard application that shows nurses and clinicians how long patients have been waiting in any one area and tracks that against industry benchmarks.
Know Your Industry -- and Others
As crucial as knowing the business is, it's only a first step, say Peterson and other CIOs. To be truly strategic, IT pros need to fully understand their industry and even cross-industry forces that will eventually impact their companies -- not an easy task, Peterson points out, in complicated industries like healthcare that are roiling with change.
For midlevel IT staffers who aspire to rise through the ranks, that means homework, everything from reading trade publications and attending industry conferences to asking to be mentored by an appropriate executive.
Ask questions and get involved. Even if youre on what you might view as a pretty technical component of a project, try to understand the business context of the requests being made of you. Tim Peterson, CIO, Wellmark
"Ask questions and get involved," Peterson advises. "Even if you're on what you might view as a pretty technical component of a project, try to understand the business context of the requests being made of you. What are the senior executives' business goals for the project? How will the paying customers feel?"
And how will your industry -- and beyond -- react? Strategy means anticipating where your market is going and identifying the technological elements of that change, and also contributing IT perspective from other industries. "If senior leaders, and I include myself in this group, aren't thinking about how technology is being applied in relevant ways in other industries and other companies, we're being shortsighted," Peterson says. Just one example: As healthcare continues its customer-centric reform, it should take cues from the retail and financial services industries, he says.
Tough Questions, Better Outcomes
What's the No. 1 barrier to delivering tech-centric solutions that align with your company's strategic vision? Business stakeholders themselves often don't know what they want, don't know why they want it, or want something that's out of sync with the strategic plan. Too often, IT goes along down the wrong path rather than having a difficult conversation at the outset of a project, says Debbie Madden, former CEO of software development firm Cyrus Innovation.
"People in the tech world are getting better about open and honest communication, but it's still too much of the business telling IT what to do and then IT just carrying it out," Madden laments. "That's not good for the business, and it's not good for the team of smart technical people you've assembled. At best, they'll build the wrong thing -- and nobody wants that."
Having worked with hundreds of clients, Madden says she has learned to ask tough questions, and lots of them, at the outset of a project -- "before things get political." "I can't tell you how many times we asked, 'Why are we here? Why did you hire us?' and heard multiple answers," says Madden, who is in the early stages of starting a new tech company.
She encourages her teams to sit down the day before embarking on a new project for an internal risk-assessment meeting, where everyone touching the project lists everything that could possibly go wrong -- "everything from 'they might hate us' to unreasonable deadlines to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy," Madden says. The next day, the team shares its list with the client.
Madden acknowledges that it's counterintuitive to start off a new relationship with negativity, but she stands by the process. "I've never seen it backfire; I've only seen it help," she says. "The freedom to be honest allows us to continuously improve, and it ups our credibility when the client sees that we're in control."
Talk Strategy With Senior Stakeholders
All of your hard-learned strategic vision won't count for anything if you can't communicate it effectively to the right people, and that can be a challenge for IT folks.
"Anyone in a tech field probably hasn't spent as much time on public speaking as someone in marketing," says N2growth's Baldoni. "But the higher you go, the more comfortable you need to be speaking on your feet and speaking in public." (For some of Baldoni's specific tips, see "How to Speak With Presence," below.)