At the recent event hosted by CIO Magazine, Rob Fraser, the former CIO of Sainsbury’s, talked about the importance of building and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders throughout the business. Fraser explained how he made time for networking with his peers within the C-suite at the supermarket business and how he viewed this as a key part of his role as CIO.
The subject of stakeholder management and relationships was also discussed at a recent meeting of the judging panel for this year’s CIO 100. The general consensus from the panel members was that reporting lines and a seat on the board were not as important as the CIO’s ability to build and maintain relationships with their key stakeholders, and to be able to use these relationships to obtain buy-in and support for change initiatives.
That is not to say that reporting line and board membership are not relevant; when CIOs report to the CEO it sends a signal to the rest of the business about the importance of technology and hence the CIO role. For example, on his first day as the new CEO of Australian bank Westpac, Brian Hartzer changed the reporting line of CIO Dave Curran from the COO to himself. Explaining the move, Hartzer said “Given the changing ways customers are choosing to manage their finances, particularly through online, digital and mobile solutions, the technology function will be critical to us achieving our strategy. As such, it is appropriate that Dave Curran’s role will report directly into me.”
There is no doubt as to the relevance, importance and value of technology and hence the CIO role within Westpac as a result of this change and the explanation given by the CEO. And I believe this is something we will see more of as CEOs make the connection between a strong IT capability and being a successful and sustainable digital business.
Giving the CIO a seat on the board is also a way of demonstrating the importance of the CIO role. By making the CIO part of the organisation’s senior leadership team, the body that considers and makes the key business decisions, creates vision and drives strategy, an organisation is elevating IT from a function that follows the business to a function that is helping to shape and lead the business.
However, and as the CIO 100 judging panel concluded, there is a lot more to being an effective CIO than reporting line and board membership. To drive transformation across the business – something that the modern CIO is increasingly expected to do – requires strong stakeholder management, relationship building, networking and influencing skills. Anyone that relies purely on having the CEO as their boss or a seat on the board as the basis for leading business transformation will soon come unstuck. Building and retaining support for change initiatives requires significant and ongoing investment in relationships with all areas of the business.
And it is not just the opportunity to lead transformation initiatives that is driving the need for CIOs to become more social. Other functions are becoming more involved in technology investments with some even holding their own IT budgets. The CIO still has a key role to play in leading, guiding and influencing the technology choices being made by these other functions, and for ensuring a joined-up and consistent approach across the various IT budgets and initiatives. But they can only do this if they have good relationships with their peers and can use these relationships to set the overall direction for technology without controlling the entire IT budget as they have done in the past.
However, CIOs have not traditionally been known for their stakeholder and relationship management skills; these soft skills have not necessarily been high on the list of desired attributes for technology leaders in the past. And neither are they areas where traditional CIOs have wanted to spend much of their time. But in the digital business, the CIO has to be social; they need to be spending an increasing amount of their time outside of the IT function and engaging with their stakeholders within the organisation, and with the organisation’s customers, partners and suppliers.
To be effective at internal and external engagement requires the basic communication and interpersonal skills that anyone in a leadership role must possess. CIOs that are not strong in these areas either need to work hard and fast to develop these skills or should start thinking about an alternative career path. There is no future for CIOs who are not good at communicating and interacting with other people; the relationship building, influencing and collaboration skills required for the digital age cannot be developed if these basics are not in place.
CIOs also need to become good networkers within and outside of their organisations. Effective networking is key to building and maintaining productive relationships with internal stakeholders and external parties. Influencing and working collaboratively are much easier if there is a strong underlying relationship between the parties. But networking and building relationships cannot be done in a few days or weeks, it is achieved over months and years. CIOs have to invest time, energy and effort to build their networks and establish good relationships with their stakeholders. And it has to be done continually; it is not a one-off activity with an end point. If necessary, CIOs should schedule time in their diary every week for networking. It is at least as important as all of the other demands on their time and cannot be the thing that gets dropped during busy periods.
And if networking, relationship building, influencing and collaboration are not strengths of a CIO, then they need to work on these areas with some urgency. They are essential skills for the digital age and without them the CIO will not be given the opportunity to shape and lead business transformation.