CIO playbook: 10 tips for leading IT in the digital era

From navigating politics to jettisoning ROI, CIOs from Bharti Airtel, Land O'Lakes and the United Nations shared tips for IT leadership in disruptive times during a panel at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.

CIO playbook: 10 tips for leading IT in the digital era
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CIOs have never had greater opportunities to impact their businesses. With 81 percent of CEOs viewing technology as the biggest disruptive threat to their organizations, according to KPMG's new U.S. CEO Outlook 2018 report,  more IT leaders are getting leeway to invest in in strategic digital capabilities to reinvent their companies and disrupt competitors.

But disruption means different things for different CEOs, who must figure out what to add and subtract from their overall business strategy, KPMG says. "It’s not always an all-out transformation, but a focused introduction of technology that can create value and secure competitiveness,” explains Mike Nolan, KPMG vice chair of innovation and enterprise solutions.

But IT leaders who can't close the gap between their companies' capabilities and the emerging disruption are being rapidly replaced, a fact of which CIOs are well aware.

"[The digital gap] is getting filled but not by us," said Atefeh Riazi, chief information technology officer of the United Nations, alluding to the influx of chief digital officers emerging to spearhead digital strategies.

Riaza, along with Land O'Lakes CIO Mike Macrie and Bharti Airtel CIO Harmeen Mehta, last month shared their secrets for successful IT leadership during a panel at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.  The CIOs were all finalists for MIT’s CIO Leadership Award for 2018, which Mehta won.

Following is advice Macrie, Mehta and Riaza have for CIOs in charge of transforming their organizations.

Silence kills good ideas

Successful CIOs share their good ideas, rather than simply take orders from the business, says Mehta, who helped her company build a music application and is currently using machine learning to personalize services for customers. "You kill a good idea the minute you don't voice it," she adds. Now, Mehta says, business leaders compete for her time and resources. "Because we started at the back of the room, we always think that the business has to come and put us on the map," Mehta says. "I completely disagree with that. You have to put yourself on the map.”

Let the business lead

Macrie says he tries not to bring any technology investment forward at Land O’Lakes, where he is testing machine learning and robotic process automation, among other tools. “I let the business lead, and determine how the investment goes,” Macrie says. Macrie then hammers out a strategy for whether the investment will play out because “many of the investments require change in the business that goes on for years.”

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Political plays

To survive and thrive, CIOs must navigate the corporate politics practiced by different business entities, which each have their own agendas, says Riazi, who is exploring how drones can deliver medicine to those in need and using blockchain to establish peoples’ identities. “It’s understanding how to work with different entities to identify pain points and deliver innovation,” Riazi says.

Create a knowledge-sharing culture

Organizations evolve organically and through mergers and acquisitions, which can alter corporate culture. One way CIOs can distinguish themselves through sometimes tempestuous changes is by instituting a culture of data and knowledge sharing. “That is not easy in an organization which is highly fragmented from a business perspective, and your job as CIO is to introduce technology that is cohesive and harmonized and that allows them to share data,” Riazi says, adding that she struggled with sharing CRM knowledge at the UN.

Be aggressive

CIOs should assert themselves rather than wait for leadership to invite them for strategic discussions, Macrie says. But he says it’s incumbent on them to “work relationships” with business peers, which will help them build trust and competency. “Nurturing those relationships, understanding their goals, and how to help them achieve those goals has been critical to my career,” says Macrie. “Then you are invited into the room and into more of the strategic decisions early and upfront and they start coming to you.”

Show patience

Some CIOs think they’ve stumbled upon game-changing technology only to be thwarted by senior leaders who haven’t had time to study market innovation. “We have so many conversations with the business where we think [some business technology idea] is going to change the company and change the world and they're like, ‘We don't need that right now,’” says Macrie. Yet some of these same leaders come back a few years later saying they need that same solution “tomorrow.” “We see broad levels of technology and innovation, and you just have to have patience,” Macrie says. “Sometimes it takes time for [the business] to see the market mature.”

Get into the field

Getting out of cushy offices and learning how rank-and-file employees do their jobs helps CIOs better understand their business. For example, Mehta spent time in the field with employees from the fixed-line business to learn the best spot to dig trenches to lay cables and other infrastructure. “The moment you see that action it changes your perspective of what you're going to change and how,” Mehta says, adding that going into the field empowers CIOs to recommend business process changes. “That's how you become a partner. The dialogue is very different when you've gone and done it with your own hands.”

Fear no failure

CIOs must have the wisdom and courage to understand that not every trial or pilot will work out. CIOs must roll with the pitfalls, be okay with falling and dusting themselves off along the road less traveled, says Mehta, whose team also introduced a TV application. “You can't have the fear of failure because you will walk like a child in the middle of the road because you don' know what side to go on,” Mehta says.

Jettison the ROI

Riazi disputes the notion that every IT investment must have a clear-cut ROI. Rather, Riazi says that the impact of IT investment should be viewed through the lens of whether it makes a business more competitive and whether it creates value for customers over the long haul, rather than short-term financial considerations. “We have to change the conversation. It's not always about financial value; it’s about being competitive,” Riazi says.

Keep up with tech

Mehta says that CIOs don’t have the luxury of not keeping up on technology, and must demonstrate their depth on IT. “Don't lose your edge on technology,” Mehta says. “The world of generalization is dead; it is a world of specialization. Those who've kept up with technology have gone places; those who haven't didn't.” 

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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