Why CIOs must become jack-of-all-trades in a technology-focused world – CIO Dive

Editor’s note: The following is a guest article from Lloyd Adams, SVP & managing director, East region, SAP America.

It’s time we rethink the CIO role.

Journalist David Epstein’s recently released book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” dives into the lives of famous success stories like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and the chess-playing Polgár sisters. The case studies discern the value of dedication to a single field, relentless practice and development, and commitment from a young age.

However, Epstein’s book works to upend the established lore of popular culture and the church of “10,000 Hours.” 

To truly succeed, he says, one must be deeply curious about several fields, skills and capabilities. He argues jacks-of-all-trades are poised to innovate and evolve in ways specialists simply never could. To paraphrase Epstein, CIOs cannot just be technology experts anymore either.

Historically, chief information officers were pigeonholed as gearhead techies, technology experts who believed in its ultimate power above all else. Until 2020, they were often viewed as the outsiders in the C-suite, there just to make sure the business kept running as it was supposed to and to stay quiet otherwise. 

However, the effects of the pandemic underlined, bolded and italicized the importance of IT to the continued success of the enterprise. After COVID-19 hit, technology leaders kept IT systems up and running, set up rapid and sustainable remote working capabilities, took care of a disparate and drained workforce, and much, much more. 

The CIO’s importance will not be mistaken now. Three-quarters of CIOs played the role of educator to their CEOs in 2020, according to a Gartner survey, and 61% told Harvey Nash their influence in the C-suite increased during the year. 

Innovation and digital transformation remain essential, but for IT leaders to succeed in 2021 and beyond, they must be prepared to wear a number of hats. 

We’re not just talking about developing a few skills; we’re talking about developing entire personas that can dive into any business unit and prove technology’s worth. We’re talking about CIOs building power and influence across the enterprise by leaning into a number of seemingly distinct roles.

They just need to have range.

1. Leader

Judging solely by public messaging, every company on earth seems to have digital transformation on its agenda these days. A year of increased use of cloud technologies, collaborative tools and advanced analytics made the need all too clear.

But, as every CIO knows, digital transformation goals don’t necessarily translate into digital transformation results. 

There’s a big difference between wanting to do something and actually going out and doing it. That’s why CIOs must learn to lead the C-suite toward becoming an intelligent enterprise, guiding and shaping the post-pandemic future.

They must be visible and accessible. They must project calm and confidence. And they must view themselves not just as “IT people,” but as leaders of the entire transformation effort.

2. Salesperson

To embody a leadership position, CIOs must remember that the business always comes first. As Larry Wolff, founder and CEO of Wolff Strategy Partners, put it in a recent interview, “technology has no role in a technology pitch.”

CIOs must view every decision and every initiative holistically, finding ways to move forward with technology serving the business — and not the other way around.

The transformation pitch must highlight business value, whether resulting from increasing the number of customers, reducing costs, or making the enterprise more efficient long term. 

Every technology pitch should be able to answer several key questions:

  • Why should the company do this?
  • How does this align with and optimize the business strategy?
  • What risks will this help to mitigate?
  • What’s the overall return on investment?
  • Why should the business pursue this right now?

CIOs who can learn to answer these questions and sell their answers will position themselves and their company for digital success going forward.

3. Marketer

Successful CIOs have stories they can tell, right? Well, tell them.

As the days of being viewed as siloed tech experts fade away, the importance of marketing the IT story to the company and the world only increases. Find a way to share how and why the team is great at what it does. Create company newsletters updating the organization on the latest technology advancements and upcoming events. 

This won’t just help instill confidence across the company about the importance of IT efforts; it will open a line of communication that ensures priorities and intentions are in the right place.

Try running quarterly town hall meetings showcasing the work of the IT department. Have the company’s CEO or CFO sing the team’s praises and accomplishments. Do some media training to get the story into the trades.

If people don’t understand what the IT department is doing and why it’s working, the CIO’s influence will only suffer. Take control of the story.

4. Trusted advisor

At risk of sounding like reality television host Jeff Probst, I’ll say this: Building relationships and alliances within the C-suite is absolutely essential to success — and survival. Technology initiatives mean nothing and will get nowhere otherwise.

For instance, if a CIO hasn’t conferred with the department that will eventually be most affected by a technological change, it sets the IT department up for failure. Keep the CFO, the procurement team, the necessary business unit executive and the general counsel in the loop so that proposals will be strong and supported when presented to the entire board. 

Be attuned with employees at each layer of the impacted department so the plan can be executed effectively. Balance team concerns with organizational interests while remaining forward-looking.

This is why so many thought leaders today talk about the need to develop soft skills. With stronger relationships throughout the company, CIOs can ultimately help build a stronger organization, one buoyed and accelerated by technology and transformation.

5. IT expert

IT leaders still must be IT leaders. We cannot lose sight of that fact.

The business always comes first, but the CIO knows how technology can help solve problems better than anyone else. Connect industry trends to technology use. Infuse technology with clear processes to increase organizational efficiency. Respond to market pressures by creating innovative technology solutions. Set aside time and money to study and sample new technologies. 

Our sole role may no longer be to keep tech running, but it’s still important. The IT team is there to uphold the critical technology infrastructure that allows the company to function.

What’s the difference between then and now? CIOs are also finding ways to challenge the company and to push it forward, every single day.

CIOs may need to learn a few new skills to do all of these things well. And these aren’t even all of the roles CIOs will play. 

CIOs must also be ideators, diversifiers, sustainability supporters, mental health advocates and much more. The answer to what makes a great CIO has shifted and changed repeatedly in the past 12 months, but that’s only because CIOs are shifting and changing as well. 

The generalists, the dabblers and the chameleons among us? They will succeed.

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