5 risks CIOs must assume in the digital age

Are CIOs supposed to avoid risk or embrace it? It depends. For digital programs to flourish and fuel the growth of the larger organization, entirely new behaviors need to be adopted by IT leaders—but they each come with an assumed risk.

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For too many people, the concepts of “acting as a responsible CIO” and “taking risks” are mutually exclusive. A Traditional CIO is accustomed to a world where if nothing breaks, their job is safe. If they don’t touch anything, they can’t break anything. In this paradigm, taking risks is unwise.

In my opinion, rampant risk avoidance is the reason CIOs now lose their jobs at the second highest rate among the C-suite. Inaction—or maintaining the status quo—carries a much greater threat to the CIO (and the organization) than does taking an active stance and assuming the associated risks. In the digital age, where IT is the business, being CIO is like playing quarterback: if you stay in the pocket long enough, you will get sacked. You have to make a move.

Taking risks vs. assuming risks

Naturally, I am not advocating for CIOs to assume unnecessary risks associated with security, technology failure, loss of key personnel, vendor performance, or other factors. These risks must be mitigated in a systematic fashion.

I am also not encouraging CIOs to take unreasonable risks that could hurt their department, let alone company performance. In fact, there is no need to “take” risks at all. Taking risks implies explicit, fork-in-the-road decisions. In contrast, assuming risk is a commitment to a particular pattern of behavior, where long-term benefits outweigh occasional setbacks.

As an IT leader, there are 5 categories of risk you must assume in the digital age:

1. Risk making others uncomfortable

Effective CIOs ask open-ended questions. By doing so, you risk putting people on the spot, igniting fierce debates, uncovering dissenting opinions, and creating tension. The payoff to asking open-ended questions, and making people somewhat uncomfortable, is that you will uncover new information and foster healthy conversations. You will also earn more respect as an inquisitive, open-minded leader.

This is a minor risk in the end because, deep down, people like to talk. They may need to get over a bit of trepidation about talking with someone in a position of power, but it is usually worth the risk. When you genuinely care about someone’s perspective, they will feel comfortable sharing their opinion. Mitigate this risk by practicing approachable body language and active listening skills. 

2. Risk being uncomfortable

In the digital age, strong IT leaders need to focus more on strategy and business than on technology. This may be outside your natural comfort zone. Your knowledge of technology likely helped your career for a long time. Let’s admit it—playing with technology is often a CIO’s happy place. It’s time to leave the toys behind. In addition, you may be comfortable with wearing the “IT Guy” label. Moving away from an existing self-identity may cause anxieties related to imposter syndrome.

Since “digital” is a strategy, not a technology, a business-oriented mindset is a must. Conversations about technology are most often operational in nature. Push yourself to switch conversations with your business counterparts to business topics, such as monetizing data or improving customer experience. Once you align on a vision, the technology decisions you’ll need to make will become much easier. These strategic-level conversations might feel uncomfortable at first. Here is where “acting your way into a new way of thinking” becomes a powerful self-management technique.

3. Risk letting others disappoint you

People make a difference. Getting the right team in place will always make you more successful than relying on technology, frameworks, systems, and brand reputation. Yes, depending on others means you risk being let down by them. On the other hand, you might be amazed at how much they exceed expectations. Trust your team, because “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (Unknown)

Constantly networking is the key to meeting more people and improving your chances of attracting the best and brightest.

4. Risk being perceived as a wishful thinker

To ensure alignment with your fellow executives, you will need to communicate your vision across and down the organization. An effective IT vision should be cascaded from the overall vision for the company. Therefore, it arguably should not be about technology at all, but rather about how IT will drive the overall strategy of a digital experience.

Given the perception that CIOs are primarily the technology experts, communicating your vision may put you at risk of seeming like a wishful thinker in the eyes of others—your fellow executives, your direct reports, or others. The upside to establishing a well-aligned vision is that IT projects, services, and resources will advance the organizational strategy, meet less internal resistance, and improve outcomes for the organization across the board.

The best way to counteract this risk is simple: deliver on the vision. Once you’ve proven that you can set a goal and achieve it, your vision will have credibility.

5. Risk being perceived as failing

Most digital transformation journeys are just beginning. As such, successful digital programs adopt a startup mentality—where failing fast is the best way to thrive.

Failure can be scary. Failure can haunt your career. Thwart this risk by embracing failure for yourself, your team, and your digital programs. Celebrate failure, and share lessons learned. The truth is failure is an acceptable part of the game as long as failures ultimately pave the way toward eventual success.

Position both your team’s wins and losses as equal contributors to overall progress. A formal internal communications campaign that highlights beneficial outcomes from both successes as well as failures will help mitigate the risk that others will hold failures against you personally.

Assuming risks means changing behavior

As stewards of technology, traditional CIOs learned to avoid risks. After all, if a key application is down for hours or there is a security breach, CIOs can lose their jobs. Yes, these operational risks are as critical today as they have ever been, and they have to be mitigated well.

In the digital age, CIOs are expected to lead the way, and so they must assume risks associated with regularly performing the executive-level activities that will push the organization forward:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Risk making others uncomfortable.
  2. Move beyond technology. Risk being uncomfortable.
  3. Focus on people. Risk letting others disappoint you.
  4. Communicate your vision. Risk being perceived as a wishful thinker.
  5. Embrace failure. Risk being perceived as failing.

These are a whole set of new risks related to the strategic use of new technologies. CIOs must up their game and assume risks associated with such an upgrade. These are behavioral changes that allow CIOs to go beyond risk avoidance—but instead drive towards an organization’s success.

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