by Heath Muchena

3 strategies for CIO business success: African IT leaders speak out

Sep 25, 2019
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Here's what CIOs in African enterprises say about what it takes to be an effective business leader.

presentation / meeting / teamwork
Credit: PeopleImages / Getty Images

In Africa, like elsewhere in the world, CIOs are increasingly expected to bring innovation to their organisations – new ideas and uses of technology that will grow their business.

Business leaders today believe that new ways of working are required to enable flexibility and responsiveness in an increasingly digital world, according to a PwC  South Africa survey, “The changing role of the CIO.”

“This new business context is seeing technology finding its way into the heart of the business agenda,” according to the survey. “Increasingly, CIOs will hold the key to unlocking competitive advantage, business benefits and relevant customer engagement, and with this shift comes growing pressure on, and higher expectations of, the IT function.”

In a recent article, we covered some of the factors that are contributing to the changing role of the CIO in Africa. Here, we’ll delve into three key strategies that CIOs in businesses operating on the African continent think that aspiring technology leaders need to consider in order to meet the expectations of senior management and effectively lead their teams.

Focus on business strategy

“CIOs are no longer simply vision executors but vision architects,” says Titi Fakuade, CIO at Liberia-based Lonestar Cell, a subsidiary of South African conglomerate MTN Group.

African CIOs, like their counterparts globally, say that the focus for CIOs is moving toward the value-enhancement side of IT instead of traditional cost-optimization functions. To be considered part of the executive leadership team, technology leaders are expected to support and bring in ideas for business transformation projects that are in line with their company’s overall strategy.

“The CIO of today requires different skills from the CIO of yesterday. For a long time IT functions were centred around infrastructure, now it’s more about digital transformation,” said Tendayi Chirokote, CIO at Zimbabwe-based Nyaradzo Group, a life insurance and funeral services company. “Aspiring CIOs need to spend as much time learning about business enablement as they do technicals.”

Specifically, technology leaders need to understand the general landscape in which their enterprise operates, the metrics that the executive team uses to measure performance, and the direction in which the business is headed — and use all that along with technology to help shape company strategy, Lonestar’s Fakuade says.

Emerging technology should always be considered in light of how it might enhance business strategy. “It’s important for aspiring CIOs to stay abreast of new technologies and trends [that are] critical to transforming and providing business value,” Fakuade says.

Finally, it’s important to look before you leap: Technology leaders need to take the time to get to know how a company operates, and how technology supports business processes, says Shayne Turley, CIO of Goldwagon, a vehicle spare parts company with 104 stores spread across sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s quite common for ‘high title’ individuals to come into a company and right off the bat start implementing their methods of execution, often without sufficient insight into the operational challenges,” Turley says. “This I believe could quickly deteriorate a company’s progress.”

Foster collaboration

Many businesses are hampered by the lack of good relationships within IT departments, specifically between development and infrastructure staff. CIOs need to break down barriers.

“Enterprise IT requires collaboration across all areas, from product development, product acquisition, implementation, infrastructure, information security, to data governance,” said André Martin, CIO at South Africa-based King Price Insurance.

“Good relationships bring about good collaboration, which brings about successful delivery,” Martin said.

CIOs should work to build good relationships among technical staff, developers, testers, service desk staff, technicians, administrators, architects, scrum masters, and other specialists that make up an IT team, Martin said.

But creating a productive, collaborative environment starts with the individual.

“There is a massive difference between being a figure of authority and being a leader,” Goldwagon’s Turley said. “A modern CIO realizes the need to include the team in decisions and exuding humility.”

CIOs also should be aware of how IT staff communicate with each other. Typically, when IT staffers arrive at work, they put on their headphones and “disappear into their world of ones and zeros,” Martin says. Email and instant messaging are their primary methods of communication.

“Encouraging staff to have more face-to-face discussions instead of using email chats, helps to create good working relationships,” Martin says. “Good relationships go a long way towards creating an environment where people are happy to execute on the vision of the business.”

Cultivate a culture of transparency and trust

Ultimately, the path to understanding business processes, discerning the problems that hamper operations, and cultivating productive collaboration must be laid on a foundation of openness and trust.

“Any CIO will tell you that IT is constantly in the firing-line when it comes to issues like late delivery, failed projects, system gremlins, downtime, and more. And obviously, no one likes to be singled out, so it’s natural to try to find someone else to blame,” Martin says.

To insure peak performance you have to strive for continuous improvement, and there is no better way to do this than to learn from your mistakes. But you can only learn from mistakes if these mistakes surface, Martin says. “For mistakes to surface there needs to be a safe zone which is essentially a zone of trust in which you can surface and own up to your mistakes, without being thrown under the bus,” he says.

This does not mean that there should not be repercussions for repeated shortcomings, Martin notes. But, without mistakes there is no learning or improvement.

CIOs need to set the example, be transparent about their own mistakes and own up to them to help create this safe zone. “As leaders we are afraid to be transparent about our mistakes, but we need to understand that our mistakes don’t go unnoticed by our staff. People simply don’t appreciate double standards,” Martin says.

“The staff you lead have to trust that, if they own up to mistakes, you have available to support and guide them,” Martin says.