by Mary K. Pratt

Essential traits of business-driven IT leaders

Apr 22, 2019
CareersCIOIT Leadership

The CIO role is quickly transforming into one responsible for driving business change. Here’s how to shake up your approach and envision — and realize — positive business outcomes.

female leader traits of leader driving business woman executive
Credit: thomasandreas / Getty Images

Marc Lalande found himself dealing with a scenario typical for CIOs: The unauthorized use of an application.

Lalande, CIO and partner at the creative services firm Sid Lee, learned about this shadow IT lurking in the firm’s New York office after one of his IT managers flagged it as outside the organization’s global tech standards. Lalande investigated and found, as is often the case, that employees had started using Slack to collaborate because they felt this particular platform best met their needs.

Rather than clamp down, Lalande reached out to the employees, listened to their reasoning and determined that Slack should be expanded to Sid Lee’s Montreal headquarters as well as its offices in Los Angeles, Paris and Toronto.

Lalande says that willingness to embrace solutions brought on board by employees, the agility to absorb it into the IT stack, and the vision to see how it could be leveraged for even bigger returns speaks to the mindset that CIOs must have today.

“If I would have resisted, we would have missed out on an opportunity,” he says.

And IT today, he says, is all about seizing on opportunities.

“The IT department has to help the business make more money. So as CIO you have to be focused on the business. It’s not about providing the computer, the network or the server — that, anyone can do. It’s about how we can grow the business,” Lalande says.

The business-driven IT leader

Digital transformation is putting more and more demands on the CIO position, with the role undergoing a profound shift from implementing and maintaining a reliable and stable portfolio of back-office technology to devising ways that technology will make their organizations money.

That shift requires a different type of CIO, according to management experts, researchers and executives.

“We’re hearing from CEOs and on executive surveys that there’s a need for the CIO role to change and for people who hold that role to develop new skills and capabilities. That’s definitely on the rise, and that’s not going to go away,” says Suzanne Adnams, vice president and analyst with research and advisory firm Gartner.

Others see the same trend. Consider, for instance, the findings from Deloitte’s 2018 Global CIO Survey. It found that the two top expectations for CIOs are to align with the business and to transform business processes. IT operational excellence ranked third.

Based on such findings, Deloitte describes the two types of CIOs needed in the future. One is the “business co-creator” who spends most of his or her time driving business strategy or enabling change. The second is a “change instigator” who leads technology-enabled business transformation.

But what are the traits and behaviors that this new breed of IT leader must possess? What, exactly, do CIOs need to do differently to succeed moving forward?

Shake up your approach

To start, CIOs need to change how they spend their time, says Michael Gretczko, a principal with Deloitte Consulting and leader of the firm’s Global and U.S. Human Capital service.

He says Deloitte’s CIO survey found that just over half of the responding CIOs say they are focused on operational functions and have little time for strategic planning. Yet about the same amount — slightly more than 50 percent of responding CIOs — say they want to refocus their time to meet the changing demands of their job.

Moving forward, Gretczko says CIOs need to spend more time looking outside of their own organizations. They should be thinking of and engaging with the company’s customers, Gretczko says, noting that leading-edge CIOs are out in the field alongside their sales teams to meet customers and hear their thoughts.

CIOs also need to create and work with an external ecosystem of analysts, investors, venture capitalists and vendors who can provide them insights into emerging technologies and how those technologies could disrupt business models.

Moreover, Gretczko says, CIOs need to be open to the information they’re hearing without being dazzled by the technology. “They have to be actively sensing what’s happening, [but also] have a healthy dose of skepticism,” he adds.

Adnams offers a similar take.

“The CIO needs to be more of an explorer and an innovator and go outside of IT to work with the business leaders across the enterprise, work with the board and the executive committee. The CIO’s focus needs to shift [from IT operations] to what the entire organization is trying to achieve,” she says.

Envision business outcomes

To be sure, some key skills needed for this new CIO have been required for at least the past several years, Adnams and other experts say.

Those skills include being good listeners who can empathize, articulate speakers capable of explaining complex technologies in straightforward terms that tie into business needs, and supportive managers who build technical teams equipped with the skills needed to work on today’s dominant technologies as well as the technologies they expect to adopt in the near future.

Required skills also include an understanding of business fundamentals, including how their companies make money.

Leading CIOs have more, though, Adnams says.

“The ones who hit the digital curve early shifted to being business executives. They’re focused on business outcomes and business goals. They have conversations around value and financial investments and resource management and strategic objectives. They understand the market and customers,” she says. “These CIOs don’t just understand where the technology needs to be placed, they understand the role of a business line in the strategy of the organization as a whole and where a technology fits into that as well as how it can be used to extend the market or introduce new services or produce new customers.”

In other words, the most successful CIOs don’t just use technology to enable the business to perform a task; they envision a business outcome that technology can now enable.

Embrace the entrepreneurial spirit

“IT has been an enabler in the past; now it has to be a driver,” says Mike Goldstone, managing partner at H.I. Executive Consulting. “That’s the big change that’s happening now with digitalization.”

For example, Goldstone says, a CIO who understands the power of the data being captured by IT and then envisions an innovative way to use that data to create a new product or service illustrates how a business-driven CIO operates in this digital age.

“CIOs need to be entrepreneurial,” Goldstone says. “Traditionally CIOs have been paid to make sure they keep the lights on and minimize risk, but now they have to move out of that comfort zone and be willing to take calculated risks.”

Others likewise cite the need for CIOs to be entrepreneurial, to draw on the market news and technology insights they glean from their network of external partners, and to then devise tech-enabled products and services that bring their companies new customers and/or bigger market share — and, thus, ultimately more revenue.

Inspire colleagues

“CIOs can’t go and say [to their business colleagues], ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They have to understand enough to say, ‘This is what we should do,’” says Bask Iyer, CIO of VMware, a maker of enterprise software technology.

Iyer, who also serves as general manager for edge and IoT at Dell Technologies, says this bend toward innovation requires CIOs to be highly collaborative with others throughout their organizations; they can no longer be command-and-control leaders.

“Command and control helps when you’re implementing back-office systems, but innovation can’t be done on demand,” he says. “So now when you’re doing groundbreaking work, you have to inspire and collaborate. You have to build trust, and trust is built with openness, authenticity, empathy and transparency.”

Iyer says he further believes his success as a CIO depends, too, on his ability to cultivate a strong team by continually building their skills and creating an enterprise IT work culture that’s as attractive to technologists as the culture in product development. He says he also believes that supporting his staff and going to bat for them is a must to build the trust needed for innovation to happen.

Build strong foundations — from which to disrupt

None of these requirements, however, displaces the need for the CIO to be a technologist, Iyer adds. “It’s easy to say, ‘Be business-savvy,’ but you can’t lose the tech piece, either. That won’t work in a digital world,” he says.

Others agree, saying that successful digital age CIOs are both business executive and technology leader. They must be inquisitive, innovative, entrepreneurial, inspirational and visionary. But perhaps most of all, experts say, they need to define, articulate and drive toward specific business outcomes.

“Some of the strongest tech leaders I see aren’t having conversations about technology. They’re talking about the business outcome they’re trying to achieve. They’re anchored in the business problem they’re trying to solve; it’s a common characteristic,” says Will Poindexter, a partner with management consulting firm Bain & Co. whose work includes leading its digital, technology and agile innovation practices.

Poindexter says these leaders are actively looking at emerging technologies, thinking about how they could disrupt their industry, and developing ideas around data monetization.

“They’re more proactive, and they’re bringing technology to the table from a disruptive standpoint,” he says, noting that Bain believes CIOs should be spending 50 percent of their time engaging with a wide range of partners (including customers) and the other 50 percent focused on IT (work that should include building talent and capabilities).

Poindexter adds: “The best CIOs have two homes where they are actively engaging.”