From back office techie to digital leader

boardroom_discussionSo, this is great time to be a CIO. Technology is transforming industries, enabling new business models and creating new revenue streams. As the organisation’s technology leader, the CIO has a key role to play in shaping the digital journey.

But what if the executive team and the wider organisation do not view the CIO in this way? What if the CIO role is viewed as a technical position and not as a business leader? How does the CIO play a role in digital if their colleagues see IT as a support function instead of a partner that can help identify opportunities to use technology to create value, grow revenue and create competitive advantage?

This was exactly the problem facing the CIO that I have been working with for the last year. The CIO in question leads a department of around 150 staff in a business with turnover approaching £1bn. The company had started investing in a number of digital initiatives such as mobile apps and analytics. And it had also started using a number of cloud-based solutions in areas such as CRM and managing email campaigns. The problem for the CIO was that he and the IT function had little or no involvement in these initiatives. IT was being bypassed by other functions when it came to digital whilst in other areas it was being used purely as a procurement function to raise orders and process invoices for technology services and solutions required by other parts of the organisation.

Understandably my client was both frustrated and worried by this situation. On a personal basis, the CIO knew that being sidelined in this way was not good for his career prospects in the organisation and that it would also limit his options if he decided to move to another business. He also felt that he had a lot to offer in the areas in which he was being excluded and could see that some of the technology decisions being made by other functions were likely to cause the business problems in the future. It was also demotivating for staff in the IT department as other functions were investing in new technoligy while they were under constant pressure to do more with less and to keep legacy systems running. Some of the department’s better staff had already moved on as a result.

The CIO engaged me to work with them on a one-to-one basis, primarily as a mentor but also to provide advice on specific issues they were facing on a day-to-day basis. To support my work as a mentor for technology leaders I have created a CIO maturity model based on the seven characteristics that are the hallmark of the top technology leaders. The model draws on my own experience as a CIO, insights gained working as an adviser to technology leaders and as a judge for the CIO 100, and published research about the CIO role.

The main purpose of the model is to help my clients assess their current capability across the seven characteristics and to identify the areas in which they need to improve. Using the results of this assessment we then work together to design a tailored mentoring programme and to develop an action plan to address the gaps.

In this case the assessment demonstrated that my client had room for improvement across most areas of the model but two areas in particular stood out: they were viewed by their peers as being a techie with little or no experience beyond IT and hence nothing to offer in terms of using technology to drive revenue or enhance the customer experience. And they also did not engage with their peer group beyond formal meetings and the occasional ad-hoc conversation. In our discussion about the results of their assessment it became clear that the lack of internal engagement was a key contributor to how they were perceived by the rest of the business. But it was also true that how they were perceived made engagement difficult with some of the organisation’s senior executives who did not seem to see any need for building a relationship with their CIO.

The first step in addressing these issues was to create a stakeholder assessment and engagement plan. The tool we used gave the CIO a template for identifying their key internal stakeholders, assessing their relationship with each stakeholder and identifying what action the CIO needed to take to either improve those relationships or, in a few cases, to establish a relationship. The tool also helped them to maintain a record of their recent interactions with each stakeholder, which proved useful in highlighting how infrequently they interacted with some of their peers.

Over a period of nine months my client worked hard to put their plan into action. In terms of improving their stakeholder engagement this involved investing time in networking and learning how to use every interaction as an opportunity to influence their colleagues, share information and ultimately to demonstrate that they were more than just a techie. For some stakeholders the results were quick to see; my client noticed that some of his peers soon started asking for their opinion about technology issues that previously they would not have been consulted about. At first this was informal and ad-hoc but over time they were also being invited to formal meetings on a regular basis. And, as a result, the IT function became more involved in the decisions being made at these meetings and in implementing the resulting solutions.

For some of the more reluctant stakeholders things took a little longer and we had to revisit and revise the plan on a number of occasions. And we also had to work on the other six areas of the maturity model to ensure they had the knowledge and skills required to perform the new role they were playing. There is still room for improvement, however, and for one executive in particular there is still a lot of work to do to change their perception of IT and the CIO role. But, twelve months after our first meeting, the CIO is now more engaged with the rest of the business, involved in most of the organisation’s technology investments and leading one of its key digital initiatives.

If you are a CIO that would benefit from working with a mentor or if you would like to provide members of your leadership team with a mentor to support their development then please contact me or visit my website,


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