I caught up with Thomas Lord, CIO of UGI Utilities, after he had just been asked by a CIO forum to deliver a keynote about the evolving role of the CIO. As Lord was already in a reflective mood, I asked him for words of advice for the next generation of CIOs.
Here are Lord’s seven tips for up-and-coming CIOs.
1. Focus on the fundamentals, not distractions
It is easy to get distracted by innovation, technology, consumerism and cloud, so Lord reminds up-and-coming CIOs that the fundamentals of IT have not changed. “If you are a carpenter today, you are using the same principals as when Noah built the arc,” says Lord. “The tools have changed, but the fundamentals of what you do have not. Our responsibility is to deliver capabilities and solutions that work for the business, not demonstrate our technical prowess.”
2. Resist the perfect solution
“Appreciate that you will never be able to automate 100 percent of everything, nor should you plan to, even if that is what your business partners are asking you to do,” Lord says.
He recalls a colleague who asked for a new system that would automate the intersection between two systems. The new technology would cost $500,000. “In the end, it made much more sense to have someone take 30 minutes a week to do the intersection manually,” says Lord. “Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars automating something that you could pay someone $25,000 to do? Just because we can automate functionality doesn’t always mean that we should.”
Lord would also like to remind future CIOs that innovation is contextual. “At UGI Utilities, replacing a legacy system and creating a more robust web presence is innovative, but for another company with a later-generation system, it is not,” he says. “For a person who is barefoot, any pair of shoes is an innovation.”
3. Ensure a shared understanding
“I don’t see how anyone can be successful in IT without understanding the business that the IT function is supporting,” says Lord. However, it is not enough to understand the business. What up-and-coming IT leaders often miss is that critical step of validating that understanding, he says. “If our business colleagues understood IT, they would be able to explain what they want in technology terms,” Lord says. “And whenever those colleagues think they have that understanding of IT, we end up delivering the wrong things because they really don’t.”
Whether it’s agile development, or a more robust requirements definition process, “[y]ou have to have a way to validate a shared understanding of the business problem and the technology solution with your business colleagues,” Lord says. “If you look back over the history of when IT has gotten the solution wrong, it’s because we haven’t understood the business context of the problem.”
When Lord joined UGI Utilities, he saw that the IT team spent all its time in IT, so he mandated that each year every IT professional spend a full five days working with colleagues in other departments. “We make our money by putting pipes in the ground and hanging wires on poles so we can safely and reliably deliver energy to our customers and our communities,” he says. “If we in IT never get to see that, how do we develop technology to improve those activities?”
4. Don’t over-govern
Large organizations invest a tremendous amount of time and resources in a complex array of strategic committees, investment boards and other governance structures. Lord encourages new CIOs to remember that smaller organizations might not need so much IT governance. “Governance is important, but your governance can be as straightforward as the CIO and CEO being on the same page,” he says. “If you are a 200-person company, maybe that’s all you need. Governance is there to ensure alignment between senior leadership and the strategy around how the company will get maximum value from IT. Don’t govern that alignment to death.”
5. It’s all about trust
“If you demonstrate a willingness to listen, ensure a shared understanding of the problem and solution, and then deliver on that strategy, you will build trust,” says Lord. “As you develop your career toward the CIO role, bake the development and maintenance of trust into every part of your job.”
If you are already a CIO, Lord suggests you ask yourself, Who in my business would say that they trust me? If you cannot name any colleagues, you may need to consider whether you are right for the job. “If you have only a few colleagues you can name who find you trustworthy, then work on cultivating that trust and encouraging those colleagues to be advocates for you.”
6. Make vision a team exercise
CIOs are often compelled to lay out a clear vision, strategy, and a set of steps for achieving results. While that approach can ensure a successful product, it does little to engender ownership and autonomy among the IT team. “I deliberately put out a vague vision and ask the team to add to it,” says Lord. “When they do, the entire team has ownership for the vision and a sense of team-pride in developing and delivering it.”
7. Do a gut-check
“Take a good hard look and decide if this is the profession you want to be in,” Lord says. “I’ve seen people get computer science degrees, because they thought they wanted to be a CIO. In actuality, they were more interested in the technology than the people.”
With cloud technologies, IT has become much more about relationships, team building and strategy than software development. “You cannot be a programmer with a design spec who sends the results back through a slot,” Lord says. “IT professionals need to understand the interplay between technology, people and process. It’s a different job today.”
About Thomas Lord
Lord joined UGI Utilities as vice president and CIO in February of 2015. Prior to that, he was director of enterprise architecture and IS with TECO Energy. Lord received a BS in computer science from Queen Mary University of London in 1985.
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.