What does it mean to be a transformational IT leader today?

As CIO, if you think your job is systems, think again.

Having now spent the last 12 months asking every CIO I know, “What does digital mean to your company?” I have some trends to report:

  • We used to use technology to run our businesses, now technology is our business.
  • We used to sell a product, now we sell data, or connectivity, or customer experience.
  • We used to know who our competitors were, now our competitors are coming at us from all sorts of new places.
  • Our company used to be all about manufacturing, or supply chain, or design, or R&D. Now we are all about the customer, and the customer wants access on her phone, her watch, her voice, and in her car.

Suffice it to say, we are in the midst of a tremendous amount of change, which has me asking a few more questions:

  • With technology transforming the very fundamentals of our business, what is the role of IT?
  • Where does IT stop and product engineering start?
  • Where does IT stop and marketing start?
  • What is IT’s role in innovation?
  • Who is IT’s customer?
  • And most importantly, what does it mean to be a transformational IT leader today?

As is typically the case, I have no answers to any of my questions. But I do have a robust network of CIOs, and I talk to them all day every day about transformational IT leadership.

The first step in transformational IT leadership, my CIO friends tell me, is to understand that when it comes to “digital,” executive committees are not always on the same page. Is digital a function that requires resources? Is digital a set of technology solutions? Is digital a new P&L? Is it a strategy? Do we need a chief digital officer? What is that person’s background? Where do they report?

Digital is a transitional concept

In my own humble (or not so humble) opinion, “digital” is a transitional concept that we currently need to adjust to this new world of bots and artificial intelligence (AI) and voice and data. But once we understand our brave new world, we will all let “digital” go. Digital will just be the way we live. (We don’t have a “chief oxygen officer,” do we?)

But at the moment, we need the “digital” concept, so let’s define it — first, by defining what it is not.  Digital is not doing what you have always done but doing it faster and cheaper. Digital is a full-scale transformation of nearly every facet of your business.

What does this mean to you as a transformational IT leader?

  1. Embrace your leadership role in digital. I don’t care if your company has just hired a “chief digital officer” or all of your resources are tied up in an ERP upgrade. IT touches every part of the company, and if you, as an IT executive, don’t take a lead role in transforming your business model, your business will fail. You cannot do it alone, but if you don’t step up, the transformation will not happen and eventually, your company will go under. It’s as simple as that.

  2. At the same time, recognize that digital leadership is a team sport. There is no one person responsible for digital strategy, regardless of whether anyone has the CDO title. As an IT transformational leader, understand that your job is to get yourself – and your team – out of the order-taking role and find ways to co-create with your business partners. Your business partners may not always embrace the energy that they have to put into co-creation (or agile development). It is your job to move them to yes.

  3. Transformational IT leadership means recognizing that “mindset” – getting people to think differently – will be your greatest challenge. Your boss, peers, and team have thought about their business model and their jobs in the same way for a very long time. Getting them to change that thinking is hard, but with enough persistence and change management, it can be done.  

  4. Transformational IT leadership means getting your teams and your partners excited about the promise of digital and being really good at painting a picture of what your digital future can be. You may be accountable for systems, but systems is not your job. Your job is to keep your teams and your colleagues focused on the future.

The transformational CIO’s challenge

Here’s the thing: We’ve been living in the industrial era since the 18th century. In the industrial era, we wanted more owned assets, more plants, bigger teams. We wanted walls around our companies and walls around our departments. And we used technology to do what we had always done, but to do it faster and cheaper.

We’ve been in the digital economy for what feels like a heartbeat. In the digital economy, we want fewer owned assets, smaller organizations, and nimble cross-functional teams — and we need to use technology to change the business we are in.

In the face of this dramatic and almost unprecedented change, here is the IT leader’s challenge. Those industrial era concepts are hard-wired into the inner recesses of our consciousness. It is very difficult to step out of your own consciousness to change it, let alone change the consciousness of others. But that is your job. That is what you need to do.

Your most important work as a transformational IT leader is not agile, or DevOps, or voice technology, or robotics. Your most important work is to use these tools to free your business partners from their vertical, legacy, business-as-usual prisons so that you can all look up and out at your customer — and at the future of your company — together. 

That is what it means to be a transformational IT leader. Your job isn’t easy, but if it were, would it be any fun?

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