by Pearl Zhu

11 portraits of digital CIOs

Oct 09, 2018
CIODigital TransformationIT Leadership

The digital CIO as the top leadership role must have a strategic mindset, unique personality, interdisciplinary knowledge, and a clear idea of what needs to be done, while being creative enough to lead innovation, drive changes, and orchestrate digitalization effortlessly.

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In the world moving too fast with exponential growth of information and technology-driven disruptions, the CIO role is strategically important and must be reinvented all the time. What C-level executives really want now is a trusted partner that works both “on the business” and “in the business,” not just “for the business”; someone who knows what they want before they know themselves; someone who can contribute to top-line business growth. Thus, the digital portraits of modern CIOs are different from those of traditional CIOs who think and act as tactical IT managers only. The important thing is that a digital CIO, as a top leadership role today, must be dynamic and open to changes and have a clear idea of what needs to be done, yet be creative enough to lead digitalization effortlessly and not hold the company back. Here are 11 game-changing roles of digital CIOs.

1. A digital strategist

Traditional IT organizations are often perceived by the business as an isolated support function and cost center. The digital CIO must reinvent IT’s reputation as a strategic business partner. CIOs should become top business executives, not single-minded IT geeks. Strategic CIOs know how to change the dynamics of the enterprise by refining information and leveraging technology for strategic advantage. Thus, they would devote their time and energy to gain understanding of the business inside-and-out, as well as what emerging technology trends can add significant marketing value and accelerate business performance.

IT strategic planning is an integral part of the business strategy, IT needs to set the right priority, build up strong partnerships with business managers and vendors, under-promise and over-deliver, in order to truly make IT a trusted business partner.

Business will not only leverage IT as a tool for digital extensions but, more strategically, apply information and technology across their organization to attain enterprise-wide digital capabilities. It takes very concerted, structural and dedicated efforts with a strong desire on both business and IT side to ensure that the company as a seamless whole is superior to the parts.

2. An innovative outlier

Traditional CIOs often live in the box, take the inside-out lens to run transactional IT. The outlier CIOs are innovative business leaders who can step out of the conventional thinking box, connect nonlinear and interdisciplinary dots to run transformative IT, and leverage systems thinking to ensure IT as an integral component of the company.

Nowadays, technology becomes the game changer and innovation driver for businesses. Digital CIOs are often innovative outliers because they have technological vision and awareness, eager to share their fresh perspectives on how IT can bring growth opportunities for businesses, and help other C-level leaders understand how new technologies or fresh information can enhance creation, make products or improve services.

Further, CIOs have to provide “innovation execution” services to business peers. The focal point is business, not on technology itself, to run IT as the business inside the business.

3. A change agent

CIOs are accountable for a critical part of the business that is constantly changing and evolving, with increasing paces. Traditional IT is often lagging behind changes, but digital IT organizations need to become change agents and make continuous improvements.

To reinvent IT from a change laggard to the change organization of the company, CIOs shouldn’t get pushed for changes; they are in a better position to be the change agent. The more complex the change is, the more complex the solution would be. It takes multi-stepped processes to get ahead of change curves and overcome business challenges. Change should be viewed as an “opportunity,” and deep engagement usually accelerates changes. Change management needs to craft and deliver clear and cohesive messages at both individual and group level and, more critically, reinforce these statements through consistent actions.

IT should ensure its strategy implementation allowing for digital speed, its responsiveness to be seen by the business as an enabler and even an accelerator. The business-engaged CIO is the right type of digital leader to run a proactive IT organization and keep navigating during the rough sea journey of large or small changes.

4. A business solutionist

CIOs as business solutionists shouldn’t just wait for the customers’ requests to solve their issues. They actually need to work closely with the business to identify and frame the real problems, not just symptoms, and figure out how to leverage information and technology to solve them efficiently. Businesses prefer a solution that not only meets their needs, but also takes it step further, enabling them to achieve long-term goals, build differentiated competency, and elevate them to the next level of organizational maturity.

However, in practices, many IT organizations that struggle at the lower level of business maturity spend too much time on taking band-aid approaches, fixing symptoms and solving immediate issues without spending enough resources and time on developing organizational strength and achieving long-term business benefits.

To truly become a business solutionist, the digital CIO needs to set the right guidance, identify blind spots, gain insight about the business problems, provide pieces of advice and recommendations to the business on how to leverage information and technology to discover a proper solution to that problem. Otherwise, even if you have good intentions and work hard to fix that issue, it can still cause more serious problems later on.

5. A gap minder

The IT leader of the future and the exemplar of today must move away from being a pure IT manager to become a trusted business partner to bridging the gap between IT and business, and between the industrial age and the digital era.

IT historically has had poor communication accountability within IT or between business and IT. As we move from leveraging technology as a vehicle to maximize efficiency and minimize costs, to using technology as an enabler and catalyzer of totally new business models, the IT role becomes much more focused on the marketing of technology. IT leaders usually play the role of a translator between the business and IT; they must straddle concepts and translate language between the business and technical staff. Bridging the IT–business gap by eliminating “lost in translation” syndrome is a strategic imperative for improving business responsiveness and performance.

As the gap-minding role, the digital CIO should take an objective look at the relationship between IT and business, to enforce cross-functional communication and collaboration, have know-how attitude about the business and strengthen IT as a trustful business partner.

6. A digital simplifier

By nature, technology is complex, and information is overloading. However, the purpose and advancement of IT are not to complicate things; it’s the opposite: simplicity is the optimal level of complexity. Ultimately, IT needs to make things as simple as possible, and simplicity should rule the day.

CIOs need to take business problems, explore solutions for them, increase value propositions, simplify operations, optimize processes, and become better partners with the rest of the organizations. Therefore, IT organizations shouldn’t just be stocked with technologists: they need visionaries, problem solvers, change agents, customer champions, innovators and those who can think forward, dig deeper, see through the issues, look around and in the corners, and work smarter.

Further, IT has to walk the talk, in many situations, IT manages information on a business, but, refuse to run them and deeply analyze IT itself. IT knows a lot about how to make applications better, more reliable, less maintenance, and easier to change, but it doesn’t seem to want to make that a reality. To become a digital simplifier, IT has to look at itself, improve its own agility and effectiveness, simplify the way it does things, and amplify the best practices into the enterprise scope. 

7. An intrapreneur

The heart of innovation is change, and innovation is the heart of improvement. An intrapreneur CIO must run IT as a business. Intrapreneurship is about creating a new venture within an established organization to leverage startup culture to catalyze changes and inspire innovations. The heart of intrapreneurship is about the change, and organizations, no matter large or small, all face unprecedented uncertainty and high velocity, accelerated business dynamics.

Practicing IT intrapreneurship means to harness changes, cultivate the culture of innovation, and learn to generate more novel ideas in diverse teams. To run an innovative IT organization, the challenges are not just about launching successful teams, but also about maintaining their motivation and focus, cultivating a positive attitude, building a culture of risk tolerance, and doing more with innovation.

IT intrapreneurship activities can improve organizational growth and profitability, and depending on the company’s dynamic environment, their impact will increase over time.

8. A business energizer

Many traditional organizations have an overly rigid organizational hierarchy. They practice the classic organizational management, which usually enhances silos and bureaucracy. As a result, these businesses stall and stagnate with a lack of responsiveness and changeability.

IT plays a crucial role in energizing the digital business, to make sure that information and interaction flow in every direction, digitizing the enterprise platform for idea brainstorming and collaboration enablement. An open information platform blurs functional, geographical, or even industrial borders, enables companies to integrate the critical components of a smart platform, which is “open” not only because it allows information exchange, idea flow, involvement and participation but also because it ensures that interdependencies and loyalties between partners are taken into account and build up the trusted business relationship.

The digital energizer CIO can keep an open mind and enable positive energy flow, cool down stressed people before they stress others. It is important to create positive changes for tomorrow as well as the moment. Digital energizer CIOs can help to build up trust by bonding people around clear and benevolent intentions. When there is an interchange of thoughts, they begin accepting and opening up to newness to achieve common goals and reach a digital vision.

9. A policymaker

The tactical IT managers often take orders from businesses and spend most of their time and resources on “keeping the lights on.” However, to get their voices heard and improve IT leadership maturity, IT leaders should have a seat at the table to help make digital policies and co-develop business strategies, as well as provide unique business insight to lead changes proactively.

The role of the digital CIO needs to move towards the business end of the spectrum, as mature businesses should treat IT as a partner and engage IT in situations even without real tech needs in the short term. The CIO needs to reinvent leadership’s reputation from inflexible controller to insightful policymaker and influential business advisor.

10. A digital guardian

Information and technology play a crucial role in catalyzing changes nowadays, and digital CIOs need to share their technological vision with the business audience and co-develop the strategy for steering the organization toward the blurred territories and uncharted water.

Keep in mind, digital CIOs are scientific digital guardians, not charismatic prophets. CIOs should be able to envision not only where a company believes it is going, but how it will get there, as well as how it might be missing out on opportunities due to low responsiveness caused by bureaucracy, information bottlenecks, or limitations on understanding of disruptive technology trends and knowledge updates.

IT is the significant element of any differentiated business competency and the defining factor of the business success. Thus, digital CIOs have to focus on guiding the company through the digital transformation and create the unique business value by sharing a clear technological vision, making wise IT investments, and delivering the tailored IT-enabled business solutions. They get engaged in the investment process prior to the decision already being made, and keep IT running flawlessly at the prevailing level of sophistication.

11. A digital conductor

It takes strategic planning, methodologies and practices in orchestrating digital transformation. In playing this digital music, IT needs to go beyond playing the background music to support the melody. Think of it as the sheet music: take that away and you run the risk of the orchestra playing the wrong tune or stopping altogether!

IT must always be tuned up to enable business objectives and catalyze organizational growth for the long-term perspective. The CIOs have to master conducting such a digital orchestra. The CIO as the digital “conductor” has to lead the in-house musicians and has to take into account the time lag of the orchestras on another continent.

This looks more and more like the situation faced by global business leaders in the digital era. They have to keep the in-house order, and must simultaneously coordinate with distant contributors; otherwise, the “music” will jar the ears. In fact, the CIO wouldn’t be able to create a “symphony” without the full participation of his or her team members and cross-functional collaboration of business partners.

The digital CIO is a sophisticated top leadership role with a multitude of responsibilities. As businesses change size and shape, focusing on digital expansion and transformations, CIOs also need conditioning and improvement. Digital CIOs have to wear different personas and master multiple leadership and management roles all the time in order to lead confidently in the dynamic digital era.