by Martha Heller

3 patterns of successful IT leaders

Mar 15, 2016
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Deloitte Consulting Principal Karen Mazer shares new technology leadership insights from the organization's CIO program.

Deloitte Consulting’s global 2015 CIO survey of more than 1,200 IT executives, with nearly half coming from Fortune 500 companies, asked respondents to select the top competencies that an effective technology leader needs today. Respondents overwhelmingly selected the following six traits:

  1. Influence with internal stakeholders.
  2. Talent management.
  3. Technology vision and leadership.
  4. Communication skills.
  5. Understanding of strategic business priorities.
  6. The ability to lead complex, fast-changing environments.

While the majority of respondents cited expertise in operations and execution (that is, the ability to run large-scale projects and manage external partners), they saw these skills as table stakes. However, when it came to the skills they considered to be differentiating, such as the ability to influence internal stakeholders, develop talent, and provide vision and leadership, a staggering 91 percent did not match against these key skills.

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Karen Mazer, principal, Deloitte Consulting

“The CIO profession is less than 50 years old, and it started in the old data processing days with making sure that you didn’t drop the cards that run payroll,” says Karen Mazer, a principal at Deloitte Consulting and co-leader of the organization’s CIO program. “Now, it’s evolved into driving growth strategies through mobile, digital, cloud, and robotics. When you think about the broad mandate to support the business in a rapidly changing environment, it is not a surprise that CIOs still need to develop leadership skills in a few different areas.”

In fact, only 9 percent of respondents reported competence within the three leadership skills that they say matter to them most: influence, talent management, and technology vision. “The most successful respondents tend to take a lot of time to invest in stakeholder relationships, and they surround themselves with the right talent,” Mazer says. “This helps provide the time and influence necessary to develop and communicate a technology vision.”

How can CIOs raise their influence? How do they move themselves from back office to center stage?

3 patterns of IT leadership

“It starts with self-awareness,” says Mazer, whose CIO program includes a transition lab for new CIOs. “In the lab, we ask CIOs to reflect on the role they are playing in their organizations. We ask them to think about whether the way they are spending their time aligns with the role their organization needs them to play.”

The CIOs who responded to the survey and the IT executives who participated in the Deloitte Consulting lab, uncovered three patterns of how modern CIOs deliver value:

  1. Trusted operator.
  2. Change instigator.
  3. Business co-creator.

Whether your skills are in running operations, driving change, or creating a strategic vision, the key, according to Mazer, is to understand your environment ─ where it is today and where it needs to go ─ and match your role to that context. “We find that the most successful CIOs typically read their organizations very well, and adapt to the circumstances.”

CIOs who get comfortable with the fit between their skills and what their organizations need, however, can be caught off guard when the ground shifts beneath them. “Most CIOs think hard about what role they will play when they first join the company,” says Mazer. “But what happens when the company hires a new CEO?”

Pivots and pacing

When a new CEO joins the company and has changing priorities for IT, the CIO, along with the rest of the executive committee, should reassess their roles. Likewise, if you were hired to solve a specific set of problems, and you fixed them, it’s likely time to transition into a new leadership mode. “If you were hired to put out a fire and you’ve spent the first 12 months on operations, it may be time to pivot,” Mazer says.

Moving from trusted operator to change instigator is often the toughest change for CIOs, according to Mazer. “The most effective CIOs are situationally aware and have thought about pacing,” she says. “If you are going to push your role into a different space, you have to be careful about getting too far ahead of what your organization will accept.”

When it comes to talent, Mazer suggests CIOs spend time thinking about energy, in addition to specific skill sets. “We ask CIOs to reflect on intangibles like team chemistry and the energy of the individual,” Mazer says.

To help with relationship building, the Deloitte transition lab team works with CIOs to lay out maps of stakeholders coded by priority. How important is this person to your strategic plan? Are they helpful, harmful or neutral in developing and executing your vision?

Whether you have been in your CIO job for five days or five months, Mazer suggests you spend time on self-awareness. “Reflect on your personal patterns and what your organization needs, and understand if there is a gap,” she says. “If you are an operator, you may need to spend more time with stakeholders. If you are a change agent, make sure your business partners can handle the change.”

IT is unlike any other business function. It is technical and strategic, operational and innovative. It’s no wonder CIOs, probably more than any other executives, have to dedicate time to thinking through the specific roles they play at any one time. Don’t think of it as naval gazing; think of it as a constant focus on developing yourself into the leader your company needs you to be.

About Karen Mazer

At Deloitte Consulting, Mazer specializes in serving consumer and industrial products clients, with a focus on CIO advisory services and large scale transformation, including operations improvement and technology implementations. Prior her current role, she held various geography, service line, industry, and alliance-partner leadership roles. Mazer currently also serves on Deloitte Consulting parent company Deloitte LLP’s U.S. board of directors​.

As used in this article, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP.