by Beth Stackpole

The CIO’s next key role: Change agent

Jan 11, 202111 mins
Change ManagementCIODigital Transformation

For today's IT leaders, change management is more than technical. It's about spearheading cultural transformation at every level of the business.

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February 26, 2020, looms large for Carol Juel for a number of reasons. It was her twins’ seventh birthday, and the executive vice president and CIO of Synchrony was scrambling to get home to join the festivities. The day also took on new contours as a routine meeting exploring AWS Workspace technology subsequently laid the groundwork for the firm’s near-real-time transition to remote work as COVID-19 took hold as a global pandemic.

Synchrony sent its 4,000 knowledge workers home on March 13 and followed up with a plan that set up 12,000 call center employees with remote operations a scant two weeks later. Shortly thereafter, Juel and the executive leadership team formally launched an enterprise transformation effort to embrace the very agile business practices that got the remote work effort up and running so quickly. Their goal: to favorably position Synchrony to quickly adapt as it stared down a future of continuously changing scenarios and uncertain markets.

Carol Juel, executive vice president and CIO, Synchrony

“It was a logistics and communications exercise, but also a leadership exercise,” she says. “It’s not just about technology; it’s about an agile mindset and the cultural changes that allow for digital transformation. The role of the CIO is to connect those dots and help the organization move and adapt quickly.”

As Juel’s experience shows, digital transformation has catapulted CIOs into the epicenter of organizational change, not just as a cheerleader for technology, but as a key change agent for promoting the cultural shifts necessary for successful transformation. According to’s 2020 State of the CIO research, CIOs are spending more time on transformational responsibilities (89%) and business strategist work (67%), including leading change efforts (34%).

While playing a hand in organizational and cultural change isn’t exactly new to the CIO role, it’s newly important as the pace of digital efforts steps up and the pandemic forces massive shifts in day-to-day business operations, the future of work, and how companies engage with customers and business partners.

“The role of the CIO is to move the organization from thinking about building digital strategies to building a strategy that works for a digital world,” says Randy Gaboriault, CIO and senior vice president for innovation and strategic development at Christiana Care Health System. “CIOs don’t just implement technology; they implement organizational change through applications or technologies. What you’re trying to do when putting in a new ERP system or electronic health record is asking people to change their behavior.”

Partnering with the business

CIOs have typically dabbled on the edges of change management, focused mainly on promoting the technology piece but leaving the organizational and cultural issues to others in leadership positions. Now that the CIO role is all in, CIOs are building out a toolkit of sorts, which includes embracing agile business practices and launching training initiatives and communications campaigns, all while burnishing their own ability to take on new challenges related to leading organizational and cultural transformation.

As roles shift, Darren Ash, assistant CIO for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area, says it’s critical for CIOs to act as an enabler and a partner with the business—not just to identify and deploy technologies to solve business problems, but to get everyone on board with new ways of working. Ash and his IT team do that through direct and sustained outreach to frontline workers in the various mission areas that comprise the USDA agency, including soliciting feedback from agency personnel and final customers to promote transformation. These efforts are designed to increase the stickiness of any digital initiative and to ensure everyone is onboard with the art of the possible when it comes to new implementations.

“It’s our responsibility to better educate the business on technology and how it can be used,” Ash explains. “For us to drive change, we have to be better partners with the business, specifically the frontline employees across the mission areas and not just IT employees.”

Ash and his CIO agency peers also make a point to have their teams capture the voice of the customer—in this case, farmers and ranchers dependent on agency services—to gauge what works or what can be done better and to foster organic support. “We talk to them about something as simple as workflow or how many clicks are too many or are we asking the right questions,” he says.

Ash and his team recently deployed their change management playbook to help employees and agency clients embrace a new electronic signature application and secure document sharing software designed to address the challenges of in-person transactions during the COVID-19 shutdowns. Through training and how-to guides, Ash’s IT group worked with business partners to make sure everyone knew how to use the technology and was comfortable with the changes. “Rolling out technology like this is not IT-centric—it has to be done in partnership with the agencies to appropriately communicate how it should be used,” he explains.

The vitality of training

Robust training and e-learning initiatives are a central pillar of Avery Dennison’s cultural change strategy in support of its digital business initiatives, whether they are targeted at improving employee, customer, factory, or product experiences.

As part of its Digital Innovation Center of Excellence (DICE), the training aims to nurture digital dexterity across the workforce with an emphasis on design thinking, agile methodology, DevOps, and digital technologies. The multifaceted program leans on a combination of webcasts, instructor-led training, e-learning, and targeted communication to get Avery Dennison employees up to speed and comfortable with the ongoing changes as the business becomes more digital, according to Nicholas Colisto, vice president and CIO for the global manufacturer of labeling and functional technologies. “It’s a push to educate the masses on what different technologies and practices exist,” Colisto says.

nick colisto cio avery dennison

In addition to the learning initiatives, Avery Dennison offers a six-month Digital Leadership Acceleration Program to 20 non-IT leaders, providing them with in-depth technology and leadership training and setting them up as digital business champions.

Proof of concept work at DICE is the third component for promoting a digital culture. “If we left it to the masses, you wouldn’t get a lot of traction with [new digital initiatives],” he explains. “Everyone has a day job working on ERP or CRM, so time is limited to experiment with emerging technologies.”

Brushing up on leadership skills

CIOs themselves need to take the time to learn a host of new skills, most significantly in the area of communications, in order to effectively lead the cultural change that goes hand in glove with digital transformation, according to Noreen Duffy, CEO and founder of Red Bridge Consulting, an organizational change management consulting firm.

Not only not only do CIOs need to speak the language of business, they also need to be able to communicate effectively in the language of C-level executives, with the board and with the development team, which is increasingly leaning on agile, not waterfall, methodologies.

“The CIO needs to have a different mindset to be a partner, to be change resilient, and to be able to communicate that up and down several levels of an organization,” Duffy says. “CIOs need to be multilingual—they need to be able to effectively communicate with their team with an understanding of what agile looks like, then up and out to business partners in their language and to VPs and the board in their language.”

Mihai Strusievici, vice president of technology, global, at real estate giant Colliers International, went back to get his MBA in preparation for leading the change that comes with digital transformation. He views his role as an educator—not in explaining the various technologies, but in clarifying, in terms the business understands, how the new digital capabilities can empower the business.

Mihai Strusievici, vice president of technology, global, Colliers International

While Strusievici has made progress leveraging business-speak to forge alliances with key colleagues like the CFO as well as deep within the business ranks, he believes it’s crucial to think of cultural shifts as a marathon, not a sprint.

“We are enjoying a moment because of the [COVID] crisis and because everyone understands that technology is carrying them forward,” he explains. “While the last five months have changed the culture, it’s still too early [to consider the work done].”  

COVID-19 accelerates change

At Synchrony, agile business practices are part of a longer term cultural shift, but the do-or-die effort back in March kicked everything into high gear, Juel says. Once knowledge workers were up and running successfully at home, the management team prioritized creating a healthy, safe environment for all contact center employees, launching the #GetOurRepsHome campaign, creating a 24/7 command center to work through all of the logistics and hosting twice-daily standup meetings between C-suite executives to get the effort over the finish line.

After the rollout in mid-April and a couple of months to stabilize, the management team realized agile business practices would be crucial going forward. Handpicked leaders were tasked with being champions to help drive the change efforts along with executive team sponsors, and there was regular communication to acclimate employees to agile business practices such as continuous improvement or the dos and don’ts of a standup meeting.

“We want to continue to be adaptable and nimble, and we realized we had to make this cultural transformation a priority for the company,” Juel says. “The company is ripe for transformation because we are all hyperconnected but physically isolated, and because of that, we have a real opportunity to change how we operate.”

David Behen, VP and CIO, La-Z-Boy Incorporated

With all the COVID-induced changes over the past six months—closing retail shops and manufacturing lines and transitioning to remote work—David Behen, vice president and CIO at La-Z-Boy, also sees an upside to the pandemic. He says the efforts to get employees working safely at home and ensuring business continuity helped establish a foundation of trust between employees and management and IT and the business, which aids in cultural transformation.

“We sent people tutorials and emails walking them through all the new tools and processes, and they embraced it,” he says. “We spent the last five years telling them technology was an enabler that would make their jobs easier, then this happened. Once the rug was pulled out from under their feet, they realized this is real.”

Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO, City of St. Paul, Minn.

Even with the stepped-up focus on organizational change and the goodwill that COVID-19 has engendered in getting people to pull together, it remains difficult to change culture. Applying a one-size-fits-all approach or directing change through top-down mandates will not move the needle, cautions Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO in the Office of Technology and Communications for the city of St. Paul. Inertia is a formidable force, which is why transparency and soliciting buy-in at every level of the organization is so critical to successful change management, she adds.

“In any type of change, sometimes the headwind is this is the way we’ve always done it,” adds USDA’s Ash. “Mandating change doesn’t work without explanation, without understanding or without the opportunity to listen to concerns. The better we are at explaining and listening and, in some cases, adjusting, the better off we’ll be.”

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