How CIOs can lead the conversation

man speaking at business meetingIn a recent interview with CIO Magazine in the US, Boeing CIO Ted Colbert talked about his leadership philosophy and the lessons he had learnt on his journey to the C-suite of the aerospace and defence giant.

Relationships figure prominently in Colbert’s story. He has made establishing, developing and strengthening relationships across the organisation a key priority throughout his career. Another key focus area for Colbert is people and specifically engaging with IT staff at all levels to obtain different perspectives and new ideas. The need for CIOs to focus on relationships and people are two areas I have discussed a lot on this site so it was pleasing to read about a technology leader that is benefiting from this approach.

But it was the final quote from Colbert that I found particularly interesting and which provides the theme for this article. The interview finishes with Colbert discussing the importance of being proactive, bringing solutions and ideas to the rest of the business and, where necessary, challenging the status quo, instead of waiting to be asked for help or advice. Summarising this approach Colbert said “you change the conversation by leading the conversation and not allowing it to lead you.”

Leading the conversation is about moving from being a reactive service provider – the old model for IT – to a proactive, partner or consultant that works alongside the rest of the business. This new type of IT function has a forward looking and outward facing perspective. It is focused on looking for opportunities to use technology to create new business models, products and services, and enhance the customer experience

Front cover advertHaving a CIO and IT function that can lead the conversation is a key feature of the new model for IT l define in my book, Disrupt IT. Ultimately this new model will require major changes to the structure, skills and ways of working within the IT department as well as changes to the CIO role and the wider organisation. But here are seven steps that CIOs can take now to help them start leading conversations within their organisation:

  1. Get the basics right: before any CIO can consider positioning themselves as a business leader that can help set the overall direction of the organisation they need to make sure that the IT department and technology services are meeting business needs and performing well. If there are issues or problems with the day-to-day services provided or managed by IT then the CIO will not have the credibility they need to be involved in non-IT matters or influence the overall direction of the business.
  2. Engage with your peers: CIOs will not be able to lead their peers if they do not engage with them on a regular basis. Just as Boeing CIO Colbert has done through his career, CIOs need to develop and maintain good relationships with their colleagues within the C-suite if they want to change the conversation. As well as establishing strong relationship with their peers, regular engagement will also help CIOs understand the challenges, issues and priorities of other areas of the business – such knowledge will be key to being able to lead conversations about how to address such matters.
  3. Build your human capital: In the same way as other executives are becoming more knowledgeable about technology, CIOs also need to develop their understanding of the key issues, trends and topics outside of IT. Building their human capital will enable CIOs to offer information, insights and ideas when they engage with their peers. The aim here is to make other executives feel like every interaction has provided them with value and therefore make it more likely that they will want to involve the CIO when trying to solve problems or develop solutions within their areas.
  4. Look to the future: CIOs need to have a good understanding of new and emerging technologies and solutions and, more importantly, how they might be applied within their organisation to generate value. In the past IT functions have often been in the position of reacting when other functions have identified a new solution, vendor or technology. It is very difficult to change or lead the conversation in such situations without appearing negative or obstructive. To lead the conversation, CIOs need to be one step ahead of their colleagues; they need to be the ones identifying and proposing new technologies and solutions in response to challenges or opportunities facing their peers.
  5. Spend time with customers: as well as helping the CIO to identify opportunities for using technology to meet the organisation’s current and future needs, spending time with customers will broaden the CIO’s knowledge of their organisation and the markets in which it operates. It will also build the CIO’s credibility and add weight to their contributions as the ideas and views they offer during C-level discussions will be based on direct feedback from customers.
  6. Talk to staff: the organisation’s employees are a valuable source of ideas and insights about how the business works, issues and opportunities for improvement. CIOs that spend time talking to staff at all levels across the organisation will hear about such issues and ideas directly from source and most likely before their peers. This will enable them to proactively develop potential solutions and also reduce the likelihood of them having to react when another executive raises such an issue or idea.
  7. Bring the outside in: vendors – and start-ups in particular – are a good source of new ideas and insights into how other organisations and industries are using technology. Analysts, academic institutions and industry experts also have much to offer organisations that are looking to drive innovation or solve a problem. CIOs have typically maintained a buffer between external parties and the rest of the organisation. To lead the conversation they need to actively encourage and facilitate interaction between their internal stakeholders and third parties. By positioning themselves at the centre of this interaction CIOs can set the agenda and will also be inherently linked with any developments and ideas they generate.

Being able to lead the conversation is about the CIO becoming a more rounded and proactive business leader, making sure they are involved in the right conversations with the right people, and having the knowledge, ideas and credibility to steer the business towards the right solutions. Following these seven steps will help CIOs establish the foundations they need to change and lead conversations within their organisation.

If you are a CIO that wants to reposition your role or if you want to create an IT function that can meet the needs of a digital business then please contact me or visit my website,


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