A fluency in business and tech yields success at NATO

Sep 27, 20236 mins
CIOInnovationIT Leadership

Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer speaks with Lee Rennick, host of CIO Leadership Live, Canada, about innovation in technology, leadership across a vast cultural landscape, and what it means to hold the inaugural CIO role at NATO.

Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer, CIO, NATO
Credit: NATO

With the intricacies of the CIO role multiplying, there’s increased talk about having deft knowledge and understanding of both the business and technology in order to contemplate and process next moves as a leader. In Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer’s case as the first CIO of NATO, he has a unique perspective of soon to be 32 nations that make decisions by consensus, and he leads from a global position of technology, so there needs to be a guiding principle, he says.

“A self-sufficient organization that relies on its judgment at various levels has to be defined so you can set the vision and then execute it,” he says. “But you largely set the organization loose to achieve that vision. You need to be a catalyst for success and a source of support where everybody is enabled at a very basic level to give their best.”

Looking at it more closely, as he drives NATO’s digital transformation to build enterprise solutions and cohesion across multi-domain operations, it’s vitally important to develop fluent and multi-faceted communication skills to achieve long-term IT success.

“You need to communicate in the right language—the language of the business,” he says. “I knew at some point in my career I’d work for a CFO and have to come to him with facts, figures, data, and internal rates of return. That was the language he understood. But going to the CMO of that same organization, the language he understood was grand ideas; how can we change the world? So it’s that’s kind of language. To achieve digital transformation, it all starts with people.”

Working for a large public organization, Boudreaux-Dehmer and his NATO colleagues think in terms of a triple helix of innovation, consisting of the public sector, industry, and academia, so combined, it can be an enabler and facilitator as a public sector organization. But it’s industry that does a lot of the heavy lifting, he says.  

“You want to enable innovation and the usage of interesting tools,” he says. “But we’re very conscious about cyber security, data privacy, and confidentiality of data. I’m sure everyone can appreciate how closely we guard data and how much we focus on classifications of it. It all goes back to what processes we need to have, what the business wants to achieve, and how people’s skills, knowledge, and experiences have to be shaped to support excellence. Then it’s what technology choices need to be made regarding cloud, data analytics, data exploitation, and AI. But the central idea is how to transform the business, and the rest will follow.”

CIO Leadership Live Canada’s Rennick recently spoke with Boudreaux-Dehmer about cross-sector collaboration, getting a seat at the board table, and setting a CIO standard within a vast and globally interlinked alliance. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On seizing opportunities: When I worked at Compaq, Latin America, the job required Spanish, so I learned Spanish. Since then, I’ve had other experiences where you just have to go for it, like the NATO job, which I found on LinkedIn. I was convinced I wasn’t going to get this job. I have no public sector or military experience. I’ve been in the private industry all my life, and I was shocked when I was invited to participate in the selection process. I thought I was going to be the token external candidate, but I decided to lean in and give it my best in all the various tests and interviews that came. So that worked out. If you feel you can reach the requirements of the job, then go and reach them, and then do everything possible to get there. Just strive toward excellence and lead deliberately. Really think about what kind of leader you want to be. What’s important and acceptable to you—and what’s not acceptable.

On being the first: People ask why there wasn’t a CIO before I was appointed nearly two years ago, and the answer is that NATO is a very decentralized organization. It’s almost 75 years old and IT has grown very organically over that time. So a decision was made a few years ago to bring on a CIO to harmonize IT within the NATO enterprise. So harmonization goes across enterprise architecture, technology choices, coordinated portfolio management, coordinated service level agreements, and so on. And when I was waiting for my security clearance, I got a call from the person who ran the hiring process, and was told my mandate expanded to include cybersecurity for the NATO enterprise. So now I’m also what’s called the single point of authority for cybersecurity, risk management, as well as the top level incident manager.

On leadership: When I started out as a leader and a manager, which is not the same, I had a small team of five people. I just thought, those are going to be five of me, so whatever I do is going to be the same output times five, and this is all going to be great. But it doesn’t work like that. That was the first realization. At that time, I also worked in an environment that was fairly hierarchical and a bit of command and control, and I thought I’d get a task on my desk, translate it, and then give it out to other people. But it’s really different. So I think as a leader, you need to define a vision with your team that’s in line with the business vision. But for IT, there’s no such thing as just an IT vision. It needs to be fully supported with the business vision. That’s the North Star, and you need to constantly refer to it and be able to calibrate the entire organization so people are like magnets toward it, regardless of what happens.

On board ambitions: Managing stakeholders is not just telling people what to do. I think the board is the cart and making yourself heard is the horse. So let’s not put the cart before that horse. You need to start by contributing something of value to you, insights you have, things that are of interest to your IT peers or business counterparts. If you do that, and bring your lessons, insights, ideas, and passion forward in conversations, then heads of departments will listen, and then the CFO, CMO, COO, and then the CEO is going to listen. And before you know it, the CEO is going to take you in front of the board, and then that’s where you contribute. Many CIOs talk about the need for personal branding and I think that shifted a lot because during the pandemic, the CIO became more of an integrated leader into the overall business because IT became so much a bigger part of any digital transformation.