by Esther Shein

How to break the CIO mold — and become a business leader

May 01, 2018
CareersCIOIT Leadership

CIO, reinvent thyself: Hereu2019s how forward-thinking tech leaders are shedding the back-office order-taker role to become bona fide digital business leaders.

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Like at many companies, Aflac’s IT department used to be focused on quick wins and proving it was making a difference. Until the day CIO Julia Davis was asked by CEO Dan Amos to implement a system for paying claims in one day as a competitive differentiator. 

The idea was doable, Davis replied, but not right away. “We had 20 number one priorities, and I said it would take 18 months. Needless to say, he didn’t like that answer,’’ she recalls. Then came a phone call from Amos asking her to have lunch. “We have an expression in the south, and that meant I was getting called to the woodshed,” she says.

While driving to meet Amos, a lightbulb went off, and Davis realized that “I have to get rid of all the noise. I can’t have 20 number one priorities. So I said to him, ‘I can do it for you, but I need your commitment to make this the number one priority for the business’” with all of her peers in the C-suite.

Amos did, and IT delivered the project in five months. Since it was deployed in 2015, Aflac’s One Day Pay initiative has paid out over two million claims in one day through its proprietary SmartClaim online submission process. For Davis, it was the project that catapulted her through the so-called glass ceiling and cemented her place as a valued business leader at Aflac.

Meet the CIO of 2018. Davis is one of a new breed of CIOs who are proving once and for all that not only can they transform their organizations to digital businesses, but they are transforming themselves as well. In the process, they are putting to rest the age-old perception that IT is a cost center that exists to keep the lights on as its leaders are increasingly becoming more integral members of the business.

“As digitalization and innovation put more emphasis on the ‘information’ rather than the ‘technology’ in ‘IT,’ the CIO’s role is transforming from delivery executive to business executive — from controlling costs and re-engineering processes to driving revenue and exploiting data,’’ observes the Gartner report “Mastering the New Business Executive Job of the CIO.”

A significant number of CIOs are rising to the occasion. The report found 93 percent of CIOs at top-performing organizations and 78 percent across the global sample of over 3,000 lead adaptable and open-to-change IT organizations due to the ongoing transformation to digital business. “This makes now the right time for CIOs to transition to their new role and develop the crucial characteristics they will need to master going forward,’’ the Gartner report states.

Some of those crucial characteristics CIOs need are people management skills and the ability to strengthen relationships across business units and solve customer problems. To break through, CIOs also need budgeting and business management skills, a keen understanding of business strategy, the ability to write. 

But some CIOs face roadblocks as they look to enhance their stature among their business counterparts. Nearly half of the respondents to the Gartner survey cited broad-based culture change as their biggest barrier. Another barrier is the CIO’s own job objectives. According to the survey, 84 percent of CIOs at top performing organizations have responsibility for areas of the business outside of traditional IT, most commonly in innovation and transformation. At the same time, there has been a shift in CIO success criteria, from IT delivery objectives to more business-based measures, the Gartner report notes.

The need for CIOs to almost completely reinvent themselves comes as IT’s value proposition as a whole is shifting away from enablement and operations and toward integration and innovation, according to a 2017 report by McKinsey. Forty-five percent of respondents said IT is creating the most value for organizations through business process enablement, while 39 percent cited operational stability and management. Only 21 percent cited technology strategy as IT’s value proposition.

Earning an MBA

One way senior-level IT leaders reinvent themselves is by getting an MBA. That’s what Matt Mead did, while moving up through the ranks at digital transformation agency SPR. Last fall, Mead, CTO at SPR, went through The Advanced Management Program (AMP) at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business — an executive MBA program that is distilled down to six weeks, he says. Of the roughly 30 people who attended at the same time, Mead believes he was the only one with a tech background.

“I always thought I’d go back and get my MBA, but it was tough to make the time,’’ Mead says. Booth’s AMP “is like an MBA in a bottle.” Not only was SPR leadership supportive, they paid for Mead to attend and take a six-week leave of absence.

In the past, Mead felt that although he has been with SPR a long time, there may have been “certain financial-related conversations” he wasn’t necessarily included in.

Now, “I’m still viewed as the techy guy, but I think people respect my view of the business, and the fact that I have a formal education … means I get accounting and various aspects of running the business,’’ he says. “A lot of times the CTO role is a person with a pure tech background.” His role has now become more about presenting a vision of IT, he says. “More and more, they’re looking at me as more well-rounded business person.”

There’s no getting around the fact that a company’s C-suite operates in a very business-focused way, Mead says, and as a result, IT leaders have to follow suit. “Make sure you walk the walk and talk the talk, because that’s how things operate at that level, but there’s value in having a tech background and value in having knowledge around technology.”

Yet, it’s also important to recognize that being a technical guy in the board room “is not going to get you too far because it’s a business conversation,’’ he adds. “Technology started out as cost center only and a dreaded thing. And many businesses have discovered in horror …. that they are now at least a partial tech company.”

It helps that technology has become a competitive advantage and can be used to propel the business, Mead says, but he recommends a blend of trying to fit in while also recognizing “you’re unique and special. Let your freak flag fly when there’s something you can introduce.”

‘A different type of CIO’

Amy Brady came in as CIO of KeyBank six years ago but spent the first part of her career working on the business side in consumer banking. Although she is responsible for all the technology at KeyBank, Brady’s role extends further; she also has responsibility for all back-office shared services operations and physical security.

“Quite honestly, I have an equal voice in setting and challenging our business strategy as much as anyone else,’’ she says, and credits CEO Beth Mooney, “who identified that she wanted a different type of CIO. She brought me in to help transform technology and also transform the business. And to sit at the table, whereas prior to my coming in, the CIO wasn’t at the table.”

Although it started with that acknowledgment, Brady knew IT had to deliver for the business to build credibility. “Let’s face it: Over six years tech trends have accelerated to the point where if you’re ignoring that as a business leader, you’re not going to be around very long.”

Part of that has meant saying no to various technologies over the years, when something being lobbied might only be beneficial to a single business unit, not the entire enterprise, and budget constraints were an issue.

Brady says IT’s ability to seamlessly integrate KeyBank’s first acquisition of First Niagra Bank in 2016 “was what made our partnership even tighter and took it to a new level.” In 10 months, IT converted over 240 systems and brought one million new clients onto KeyBank’s platforms “flawlessly, in one weekend, which was pretty exciting.”

Just prior to the acquisition but also during 2016, her team also committed to delivering a new online banking platform, a new mortgage originations platform and a new commercial underwriting platform all on accelerated timelines.

“So delivering all of that in one year really built some momentum for our IT team and our business partners had to say, ‘There is no longer a perception that we’re limited by what our technology team can deliver.’ Now it’s more, ‘We’re limited on what we can consume,’” and how many new systems employees can learn to use, she says.

“That was truly transformational for us with our business partners,’’ Brady says.

Her career path has meant having to learn a lot of new skills. Among the most important, she says, have been “learning agility, having a mindset of continuous learning, and the ability to stretch beyond your comfort zone and take risks and make yourself uncomfortable.”

The art of what’s possible

With a bachelor’s degree from MIT, an MBA and master’s degree in management and international studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Casey Santos, CIO of growth equity firm General Atlantic, has likely had an easier time breaking through the glass ceiling. She has worked both on the business and IT sides in her career, which includes stints at McKinsey and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Mission Control as a propulsion systems engineer.

Technology was already viewed as a business enabler and differentiator at General Atlantic and one of the reasons Santos says she went to the firm four years ago. “I was looking for places that get there’s no such thing as technology and the business. It’s all one these days.”

Santos was keenly aware that “as CIOs, we are constantly needing to make sure we’re meeting business needs and enabling and achieving and meeting expectations, for sure.” Like Brady and Davis, she says her IT team has “had some great wins on the table to show this partnership was right.”

By partnership, she means collaborating with investment leadership to develop a custom-designed, proprietary mobile app that employees use to capture the key information they need to help guide the investment process. The app was built “organically, and this brought everyone together, and because we’re global and it allows people to collaborate, it’s a big win for the organization.”

The initiative was Santos’ first where she had to meet the needs of all 13 of General Atlantic’s offices in 10 countries. The challenge was “getting all the pieces together,” she says, and ensuring different opinions were heard.

Over the course of her career, Santos has learned “you can be a really good business leader or a good tech leader but being both is often rare. Being a person who could speak both became my goal.”

Getting her MBA certainly helped with business acumen, she says, but so did starting off “being hands-on, building widgets.” The amount of time Santos has spent “building relationships and discussing the art of the possible and applying the latest and greatest technology” has also been critical to creating value for the business.

Relationship building is core to understanding a company’s processes and strategic needs, she says. “You’ve got to spend time with business folks and let them explain their issues. Know the latest in technology and bridge the gap and have that conversation about possibilities.”

Breaking the tech glass ceiling

Davis credits her MBA with helping her get a jump into management in her 20s, which most of her male peers didn’t have. She says she followed the traditional IT career path and then had the opportunity for leadership training and learning how to build relationships and “manage people up down and across, and the focus changed for me.”

She admits she wasn’t a good manager at first. “I learned you can’t manage people the way you manage a project.” So Davis took some coaching lessons and also discovered from working with mentors that her style had to change.

“That’s probably the biggest lesson learned: A lot of people talk about how they’re always successful, and for me, it’s my failures that have taught me the most and learning to embrace that and … move on.”

Flexibility is also important. Even if a company has a roadmap of what it wants to accomplish, you have to adjust as technology and the market changes, Davis notes.

Both Davis and Brady aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Aflac’s leadership is “counting on me to give a different perspective to help them think about ‘OK, this is the direction we want to take and think outside the box’ when it comes to figuring out things like how you can sell to millennials who don’t want to talk to anyone and want to do everything online, Davis says. “So you have to think about real-world challenges, and I will bring that perspective because I am in technology and I have to face it sooner.”

“If you’re at the table, your job is to credibly challenge the business strategies because you understand how technology is changing the marketplace,’’ agrees Brady. “What I cringe about is when I hear people complain about being order takers in tech groups. I say, ‘Don’t take orders and present alternatives on how to get things done.’”

There’s no doubt technology is shaping and impacting every industry, Brady adds, and good tech leaders have to be part of shaping and leading the conversation of what they can do to impact or propel business strategies — in whatever business you’re in.

Both she and Davis also recommend creating teams of talented and diverse people. “I learned years ago when I ran innovation, you cannot innovate if you surround yourself with people who look like you and act like you, whose experiences are like yours,’’ says Brady. “I surround myself with people who are better than me in every discipline and the value of that together is incredibly powerful.”

Davis agrees, saying she’s a firm believer in what former GE CEO Jack Welch said about hiring people who are smarter than you and encouraging them and helping them grow.

“Diversity makes a world of difference in the ability to think to outside the box,” she says. “I’m not a turf builder. I look for efficiencies where I can find them,’’ she says.

It may be Brady’s degree in psychology that has helped her be a better leader. “Even delivering technology you’re dealing with engineers delivering systems,’’ she says. “It’s a human business.”