Every successful executive operates from their own leadership playbook: the lessons, philosophies and experiences that have shaped their careers and continue to guide their decisions and actions. These are the elements that remain rock-solid and foundational to their success—even in the face of unanticipated events and massive disruption.
But business-driven technology leaders also recognize that what got them and their companies where they are today won’t win the day going forward. Coming out of a uniquely tumultuous couple of years, these executives are taking stock and updating their playbooks to ensure their organizations remain future ready.
I recently spoke with three such CIOs, David Hakanson, CIO of GEHA Health, John Meister, SVP and CIO at Panera Bread, and Angela Yochem, Novant Health’s EVP and chief transformation and digital officer, about the leadership differentiators and development priorities they believe will help IT leaders stay resilient, avoid the mistakes of the past, and prime them for success tomorrow.
Here’s what they say we should all be adding to our playbooks as we prepare for the future of work.
Show up differently
If there’s one leadership trait nearly every CIO agrees is essential today, it’s adaptability. The way we work, operate, and conduct business is changing faster than ever and in many significant ways, placing more pressure on the technology organization to be flexible, responsive, and nimble. Technology leaders must embrace the uncertainties and be able to shift in response to new requirements and realities, and they must empower their teams to make these quick pivots.
“The leaders who will have the most success will be those who adapt quickly, with courage to lead their teams through the possible changes and disruptions that may follow,” GEHA Health’s Hakanson says. “If remote and/or hybrid work is in place, then how do you build a culture and environment that engages everyone regardless of their location? If the business strategy is changing, how does IT proactively look at just-in-time solutions and quickly pivot resources? If supplier or other expenses are causing strain on financial performance, how can IT be leveraged for more efficient operations?”
In Hakanson’s view, the best technology leaders are at the front lines of building agile organizations that adapt quickly in conjunction with the business. And that means not just reacting to these changes but also anticipating them. According to the 2022 State of the CIO report, 84% of heads of IT say that the CIO is evolving into a changemaker who increasingly leads business and technology initiatives. What’s more, 85% of those surveyed see IT leadership as now inextricably tied to business strategy.
Panera’s Meister adds that resilience is an increasingly critical aspect of agility. “Building the muscle of resilience is not easy or fun when you are going through it, but it’s awesome to have on the other side.”
He also notes the importance of ownership, noting that “when you place big bets, there’s always a chance you’ll miss. The true test of leadership is how you handle the slip-ups. So many leaders are quick to defend their teams,” he observes. While that might seem like a noble way to handle things, Meister points out that the focus then becomes on how to deflect blame rather than on owning the solution.
“Even if the solution is with another team, owning the resolution of a problem is what a true leader should step into,” he says.
Great leaders have the confidence to take ownership because they recognize that there’s always an opportunity lurking within a problem. It’s a chance learn, improve, and show how agile and innovative the team really is. When a leader takes ownership of an issue as soon as it happens, it gives the team the room to not only work on fixing the problem but to also make sure the problem doesn’t happen again.
“Any problem can be turned into a moment to win, a moment to differentiate ourselves, a moment to get noticed,” Meister says. “Own that moment.”
Technology leaders, in particular, have an unprecedented opportunity today to differentiate not just themselves but the entire business in an environment that’s rapidly evolving.
“The lines between industries are blurring, and the spaces in which our companies are playing are not as well-defined as they have historically been,” Novant Health’s Yochem observes. “It follows that the capabilities required for a company to remain competitive in a changing world are multiplying—and leaders can no longer draw a box around their traditional domain space and stay within it.”
Building up those capabilities and widening the view isn’t easy, she acknowledges. “It takes a great deal of professional courage, and doing it well requires a depth of understanding of the existing business context as well as the ability to predict many possible futures.”
Developing future-ready tech leaders
Building upon his “own that moment” theme, Meister highlights the benefits of reflecting on a crisis or a problem long after it’s over.
“Ask yourself, how could I have changed the situation to avoid the problem? What could I have done upfront had I known that the result was going to be this issue? If I didn’t know it was going to happen, how could I have better predicted the outcome? If it was because we didn’t have the budget, how could I have better made the case that we needed the investment? If it was that we didn’t have time, how could I have done things differently to make the time?”
Meister emphasizes the power of this exercise: “By putting yourself in the position to avoid the problem, you own the situation and your attitude changes slowly, situation by situation.”
Looking forward, technology considerations are playing a huge role in the future of work, and line-of- business leaders are counting on IT executives to be their strategic partners as these big decisions are made. The State of the CIO report showed a 30-percentage point jump (from 28% to 58%) over last year among LOB leaders who consider CIOs to be strategic advisors who will proactively identify business needs and opportunities.
And with technology leaders spending more time with business leaders and “outside the walls of IT,” Hakanson says they’re going to need to carefully balance the time focused on internal operations while developing their teams to take on more.
This has become even more urgent as a competitive labor market and a shortage of leadership skills throughout the ranks of IT could threaten progress on ambitious CIO agendas. The digital leaders I’ve been talking with are very intentional about investing in a people-first approach, one that prioritizes talent as the number one pillar in their strategy. It’s how they’re building the disruptive skill sets that will give the business “first-mover advantage,” and it’s making them talent magnets in the process.
In fact, Yochem refers to Novant Health’s Learning, Research and Culture (LRC) team as “a secret weapon” for her division.
“We are cultivating a culture of learning, and that applies to our executives equally as it does to our broader team,” she says. “Every team member has learning and development opportunities, and they can pick and choose according to their interests and availability. That doesn’t just happen accidentally. It’s possible because of the rigor and structure our LRC team creates and the strong cultural affinity that they promote across our large, distributed, diverse team.”
Hakanson says he’s been influenced by the example and impact of the leaders throughout his career who intentionally took the time out to help him grow. “I have been instilled with philosophy that one of the most important activities I can do as a leader is build a cohesive team and support growth of that team.”
That includes yearly career development plans, facilitating mentoring relationships and/or mentoring others, and training and conferences that align with their goals and interests, among other activities.
Yochem, who was just tapped to become the GM of a P&L spinoff, says, “The best leaders are very good at proactively identifying the white space and moving to fill it with differentiating capabilities—and they are training and empowering their teams to do the same.”
Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."