by Myles F. Suer

Building better business leaders

Dec 03, 2019
IT Leadership

Is the CIO a technology leader or instead a business leader. How about their team? And what role should CIOs have in building future business leaders?

executive superimposed on buildings leadership
Credit: Getty Images

According to research by Deloitte, it’s clear that successful CIOs can no longer act only act as trusted operators waiting to align with the rest of the business on their initiatives and their operations. They have to be more than a technical specialist. They have to become as a former boss suggested to me a business person. The question is where CIOs and their teams along this journey. These are the question that I posed recently to the weekly #CIOChat Twitter chat group.

Should CIOs have it as their personal objective to build their organizations into business leaders?

CIOs say the simple answer to this question is yes. They go on to say that it should, in fact, be a personal objective for all CIOs. However, they say that this objective can get lost among the noise. Could most CIOs do more? The answer is always yes.

Successful CIOs should not only have building business leaders as a personal objective, they should have it as well in their personal DNA. While some CIOs question the notion of CIOs driving businesses, it is clear that CIOs have to become or already hopefully be value-added business peers with perspective about building organizations that are business leaders. And to be clear, CIOs at Intel, GE, and Orange have all moved up and into business ranks.  

At the very same time, technology is becoming inseparable from business. For some CIOs this will be a change—in other words, moving from an IT Director mindset to a true CIO mindset. But for most, it is already their way of doing business. CIOs, by necessity, are experienced at business leadership and innovation. And have made the change to being more strategic and thoughtful about maturity of their organizations. But what about their teams?

Should CIOs be retraining their IT teams so that they are business leaders first and technical leaders second?

Some CIOs suggests that this can depend on the role the CIO is playing, but yes, especially for those staff that are customer facing people they must talk the language of the business. Others say they wouldn’t separate the two capabilities. Both are important and both need to be nurtured with the understanding that some are better at one of than the other. And this should be okay.

CIOs, nevertheless, are clear that IT leaders should be continuously training their teams. IT needs to be able to understand the technology base, discuss IT in layman’s terms, sell the next 3-5 years, and strategize on scalable solutions. Every piece of this should be aligned to the business. CIOs believe that the language of business is an absolute requirement. They, also, say CIOs need to be bringing direct reports to present at the executive team meetings to give them exposure to ‘top of mind’ issues from the CxO level. One CIO asked here if IT goes deep with end user feedback on how the business evaluates satisfaction levels, wouldn’t a common language surface? Everything, clearly, centers upon establishing trusted relationships.

What role do CIOs have in nurturing and growing the talent bench of business leaders?

CIOs feel this is a framing issue. CIOs should impact functional business models and in turn, start to influence talent acquisition. Acquiring SaaS solutions, for example, require less technical support and more functional administrative capabilities. This requires business units to create more process thinkers.

The CIO’s role should include, therefore, all the things that surround technology, not just systems but people, culture, and of course, processes. CIOs have a critical role to play in driving digital dexterity across the organization and among senior leadership. In this process, all executives should be helping to grow the leaders of tomorrow. At the same time, CIOs should be looking for ways to get their IT team into business roles that educate and strengthen the business. Part of this can start by modeling key behaviors. In a mature organization, it, also, includes building the second level up. There should be no hand-wringing. Instead, IT leaders should be Identifying business needs and be getting down to business.

CIOs say ambitious, smart IT leaders are already doing this. They are getting out of the IT organization delimiter box. They are doing what is best for the business and for their own careers at the same time. They have as well the chutzpah. They interact with customers to turn cost into revenue. One CIO in fact suggests that ambition + chutzpah might become her new tagline. CIOs think that enabling business thinking is an opportunity to work on finessing skills.

Clearly, a CIO needs to be strategic and build a team that can successfully run the day to day operations. Top future leaders today should have both functional and technical expertise in their tool kits to best serve the organization, as well as they should be conversant in security, data, privacy, and other technology related topics that affect their organization.

It is clear that all executives need to grow into the leaders of tomorrow. In immature businesses, they need to help move business models forward. In mature organizations, they need to build up that second level up. There needs to be accelerating the identification of business needs and the getting of work completed. Clearly, CIOs, as business leaders themselves, have work to do in the organization regardless of maturity. Professional development and placement of people based on their strengths and interests matters.

What do you do with people that are not a go forward cultural fit?

CIOs said that you work with them, you invest in them, and you help them connect to the why and adjust their contributions. If all fails, you help them find employment where they are a better fit. At the same, it is important for the CIO to understand why a disconnect is occurring. Is the vision not clear? Can folks not see a pathway to achieving this? Do they not see the value? Is there fear of loss of skills? There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to facilitating change.

CIO Jay Ferro says, “if you can’t change people, change people. But CIOs should know that both take a lot of time and care to help folks get on board in a way that works for them and the organization. At the same time, management is always a case of getting the right people into the right roles and helping people understand the needs of the organization. But there are always some folks who will choose to leave and others who you may have to help find a better fit for elsewhere. And this should be okay.”

For CIOs that are not ready to be business executives, what should their career transition plan be?

The CIOs were pretty blunt here. They suggested many things including the possibility of retirement. Some said that those not willing to grow will have change done to them. They will be transitioned into lower, transactional roles which will be regressive to their organization as a whole. This may be back down a peg, to their safe, sometimes strongest space.

In higher education, CIOs say they have seen some of these CIOs take retirement then take a CIO position at a smaller school. This is disastrous for the smaller school. Worse yet being tone deaf can have real business impact. Meanwhile, CIOs suggest that they’ve seen CIOs think they’re ready to be business executives but they’re not—this is almost worse.

With any transition, CIOs need to start by considering their aspirations and their needs and then making a choice.  For many, they will want to keep being a CIO. Or they find a place where they can better contribute. On the other hand, if the desired trajectory is to be a business executive then it is time to step up to the plate and become a strategic business partner. It is time to demonstrate the capability to drive the organization toward its strategic goals. CIOs need today to view themselves as a business leader that just happens to work in IT.

It seems clear that the nature of IT is changing. It is essential that IT achieve real business relevance. IT can no longer be a utility. Today, IT leaders need to have a business bent. They need to be fluent in the language of business and technology. They need as well to help business leaders see the potential from digital and as a goal, make them fluent in the potential business delivered through technology.