Step Into the Digital Leadership Void

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Bask Iyer, CIO of Juniper Networks, says IT leaders need to break out of their support roles and drive digital change.

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Bask Iyer, CIO of Juniper Networks

Bask Iyer, CIO of Juniper Networks, spends a lot of time talking to CEOs.

Many CEOs, he finds, think very highly of their CIOs and are confident they are delivering on the promise of digital technology for their businesses.

But other CEOs, Iyer finds, feel differently about their CIOs.

Their CIOs, these CEOs say, have never shown themselves to be innovators, and therefore, have not earned the CEO’s trust as leaders of a digital transformation. These CEOs have what Iyer describes as “Missing Out Syndrome.”  They recognize that they have a good CIO -- someone who can keep operations stable, serve the basic needs of end users, and drive productivity. But when it comes to innovative digital technologies and all of the fabulous innovation happening around the globe, these CEOs are concerned that they are missing out – and come to the conclusion that the problem is with their CIO.

“CEOs are being bombarded by stories of companies that are reinventing themselves through digital technologies,” says Iyer. “So they are left thinking, ‘My CIO is doing good stuff, but am I missing out on something big that my competitors are on to? Should I hire a new digital executive so that I’m able to get in on all of this?’”

Enter the Chief Digital Officer

To fill the perceived void, these CEOs often consider creating a new executive position, the Chief Digital Officer, or the Chief Innovation Officer, or they look to their marketing and product executives to bring digital technologies to their businesses.

But according to Iyer, creating a new digital executive position can spell trouble. “I’ve encountered several Chief Digital Officers who can talk a good game,” he says. “They’ve read enough and have used enough mobile apps to convince the CEO that they are the right digital leader for the company. They come in and everyone loves them -- for about six months. But they don’t really understand how to drive and deliver technology change, so they flame out. A year later, they are gone, and it’s the CIO who is left picking up the pieces.”

Iyer cautions his CEO friends that, “You can’t hire an executive who can only talk about a technology future; when the rubber hits the road, and it’s time to implement, you’re going to need more work on the back-end than you think.”

In many instances, a company’s most promising digital leader, Iyer tells these confused CEOs, is the CIO. “A good CIO has the street credibility to lead a company’s digital transformation,” says Iyer.  “Digital transformation is more than presenting ideas and painting a shiny picture of the future; digital transformation also means tying the back-end to the front-end. Good CIOs have experience leading the organization through transformation. They have the real world experience of delivering change over and over again.”

Iyer recalls a similar situation a few years ago, when e-commerce was a new capability. “We all hired e-commerce leaders who would design front-ends that looked pretty, but the designs were not functional. And, it was the CIO who wound up having to pull it all together on the back-end.”

So, if the CIO is the best executive for the digital leadership role, why aren’t CEOs convinced?

Iyer admits that CIOs who have been operationally focused for most of their careers have some work to do before stepping into the digital leadership void. In this respect, CIOs are often their own worst enemy. CIOs are good at delivering operational excellence. But the reward for that excellence is often additional operational assignments, not strategic assignments. “As CIO, you will need to continue to oversee operations. But ask for strategic assignments, as well,” he says. “Don’t cede the digital leadership role to someone else. It is time for CIOs to evolve.”

How do you know if you are ready to reinvent yourself as your company’s digital leader?

You are operationally efficient.  “It’s Maslow’s hierarchy for CIOs,” Iyer says. “If basic services, like email aren’t working, you cannot be a digital CIO. Being operationally efficient is not optional. It’s table stakes.”   

You are willing to talk strategy. “Someone once told me, when your operations are not good, you should not talk strategy,” says Iyer. “Fair enough. But, the opposite is also true. If your operations are good, then you must talk strategy. You can always cut more costs, but you need to break off from an ‘efficiency’ way of thinking if you are going to evolve into this new leadership mode.” 

You stop talking geek. “The CEO is talking about buying and selling companies and moving into global markets, and CIOs are sitting there talking about BYOD, cost cutting, and up-time,” says Iyer. “Stop talking about benchmarks and three nines. Start talking about business goals and new capabilities.”

You think about leadership, not service. “The old story is: IT enables and supports the business, IT is in service to the business, the business owns the project and the job of IT is to deliver. That’s what we’ve been telling our IT leadership teams for an awfully long time now,” says Iyer. “But if CIOs are going to step into a digital leadership role, they need to change that thinking. “

Iyer thinks back to a CIO position earlier in his career when he and his team had some ideas for innovating on a major product. “We were so focused on operations, and so worried about the political backlash from moving in on the product group’s territory, that we didn’t bring our ideas forward,” he recalls.  “In retrospect, we should have played it differently because we could have made a significant difference for our customers and our business.”

Years later, Iyer is not making that same mistake. “I don’t need to have a business sponsor for everything we do in IT,” he says. “I always have two or three innovative projects going in IT where I am the sponsor.”

For a CIO, the tension between operations and innovation requires a balancing act. “You can’t break all of the rules of your operations role all the time,” says Iyer. “But, there is a digital leadership void in most businesses today. CIO’s must not get trapped into the ‘either/or’ decision of operations vs. innovations. They must embrace both. Now is the time for CIOs to step into the void and lead.”

About Bask Iyer and Juniper Networks

As Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President, Bask Iyer oversees Juniper Networks’ technology and business operations that support a $4.4 billion global networking innovation company. With more than 25 years of experience in international business and IT management, Iyer has strategically applied his business and technical expertise across large global companies, using technology as a transformational catalyst and growth driver.

Iyer joined Juniper from Honeywell, where he served as company-wide CIO, responsible for the overall IT operations and strategy that supported 120,000 employees globally. A member of the executive leadership team, Iyer drove the IT vision, strategy, and operating plan and led the transformation program for all global functions, including IT, finance, human resources, real estate, and procurement.

Previous Honeywell roles included CIO, Transportation Systems and General Manager, Asia Pacific, where Iyer lived and worked in China for 1.5 years. Earlier in his career, Iyer served as CIO at GlaxoSmithKline Beecham for consumer healthcare research and development and was the corporation’s e-commerce leader. He also held senior positions at Johnson & Johnson, CTS Corporation, and ran a retail business in India.

Juniper Networks delivers innovation across routing, switching and security. From the network core down to consumer devices, Juniper Networks' innovations in software, silicon and systems transform the experience and economics of networking.

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