The pandemic has elevated the CIO role, along with your business partners' expectations from technology. Tony Gerth offers four tenets based on his research that help technology leaders succeed.

The global pandemic immediately raised the profile of CIOs. CIOs led the transition to work from home by providing collaboration technology and hardware that have kept teams productive. They also focused on innovation and created new products and services to keep their organizations' revenue streams flowing. All “state of the CIO” studies indicate that the CIO is becoming recognized as a business leader rather than just the caretaker of information technology.

This is great news for the profession, but these advances also mean that expectations have never been higher. CIOs, especially those new in the role, must deliver measurable business results, while sidestepping the many pitfalls that can derail a digital agenda.

Based on my research and experience in this field, here are four key aspects of business technology leadership that all CIOs can focus on to set themselves up for success:

1. Recognize that credibility and trust must be earned

The elevated profile of the CIO often leads them to believe that they enter an organization ready to lead strategic change. Reporting structure matters as any CIO will tell you, and reporting to the CEO can be the foundation for strategic influence but it does not guarantee success.

My research suggests that while a CIO initially has a resume halo effect, they still must earn the credibility and trust of their business partners. A CIO earns credibility by delivering excellent services and projects on time and under budget. “You build credibility through delivery excellence” is a quote I’ve heard from many CIOs. This is sometimes called “supply-side leadership”, and its success is a prerequisite to “demand-side leadership”, or leading strategic change.

Another way that CIOs build credibility and trust is by delivering projects that can be implemented quickly and generate clear value. Often this “low hanging fruit” is in the form of improving IT service delivery. Such improvements are low risk and highly valuable in building the CIO’s credibility with business partners.

 

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2. Intentionally focus on relationships and value

However, delivery excellence alone is not a guarantee that a CIO will be successful. Relationships are often the difference between CIO success and failure. According to my research, a top reason for CIO derailment is a lack of productive business partner relationships.

In my work with IT leaders, I have found that everyone understands the value of relationships, but few are intentional about building relationships with business partners. Most just let relationships evolve on their own, which is a missed opportunity to build mutually beneficial relationships more broadly across the organization. An intentional approach based in stakeholder analysis and relationship strategies helps the CIO treat each colleague as an individual, improves relationship quality, and focuses attention on the right stakeholders.

But don’t assume that everyone will want a relationship with you. Some stakeholders view the CIO as only a service provider, some a solutions provider, and a few a strategic contributor. Being intentional, and tailor your activities to maximize your relationship impact.

3. Embrace organizational politics

In addition to building effective business partner relationships, a CIO must be politically savvy. My research with Joe Peppard indicates that two thirds of IT leaders are Introverts according to the Meyers-Briggs assessment. As technical professionals, they also tend to prefer clear solutions rather than ambiguous situations. They often are either unaware or ambivalent about organizational politics. This is another factor in CIO derailment. One C-Suite executive shared this story about a failed CIO:

“He proceeded to try to understand all the systems, but he fundamentally forgot that there are people behind all those processes and systems. He ignored the relationships, the informal mechanisms, the informal systems.”

Successful CIOs are able to embrace politics and the culture to maximize their impact. A common description of this by C-Suite executives is “doing the right thing, the right way”. The “right way” means a way that is consistent with the organization’s culture and with an understanding of its politics. Embracing politics does not require Machiavellianism, or for one to become a political animal. It means the CIO needs to understand the informal power and influence structures within the organization. Observe who influences beyond their title, how people make decisions, and what cultural norms should never be breached.

 

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4. Mold your colleagues’ frame of reference

The last blind spot is thinking that business partners need to understand technology. They do not. Most business executives could care less about the bits and bytes of a solution. This is where business acumen, language, and communications skills come into play. Most C-Suite executives that I have spoken to acknowledge the importance of information technology. However, they do not recognize their role in realizing value from IT investments. This is their frame of reference.

An executive’s frame of reference is a result of their previous experience with IT leaders and initiatives. In the past, they may have interacted with IT leaders who spoke “techie” rather than in business terms, failed to deliver projects, and lacked business acumen. Today’s CIO leader must understand the business and explain technology solutions in terms of business value. Business partners’ willingness to embrace technology, process, and people change is the only path to true value realization.

It is important for the CIO to coach business partners to better understand their critical role. CIOs focus primarily on one-on-one coaching which usually is part of relationship building. Formal education is also an option. Another common method is to demonstrate value through solution pilot projects conducted for allies of IT.

Conclusion

Today is a great time to be a CIO. It has never been a better time to be a great CIO and no worse time to be a mediocre one! Expectations have increased as their status is elevated. CIOs are stepping up to the new expectations and reshaping their business partners’ frame of reference, which results in increased competitiveness and value. This is only possible when the CIO develops credibility, trusting relationships, and an understanding of organizational culture/politics. CIOs maximize their impact when they become business leaders rather than technology leaders.

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