Becoming the holistic CIO

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Building yourself and your team to become business leaders.

By Jon Foster-Pedley, dean and director of Henley Africa

The transformation of the CIO’s role from head of IT to integral supplier of business services, leader of digital transformation and implementer of change management began around 30 years ago. Yet despite its relative maturity, the position remains one of the hardest to define and, for incumbents, to find a balance between the competing demands it places on their time and energy.

First and foremost a technologist, the CIO must still deliver what they have always done, reliable and secure IT infrastructure: data from the Society of Information Management suggests that the trend for recruiting CIOs from a non-IT background may have peaked and fallen as a result of the need for rapid deployment of complex solutions during Covid-19. Boards want to be able to trust whoever is in the role to deliver the basics.

Yet, despite a new appreciation for their expertise and knowledge, the demand that CIOs must also be leaders in building effective working cultures and be focused on creating business value hasn’t lessened. After all, it’s their tools that decide whether or not remote working and collaboration deliver productivity gains, while also (in many medium to large enterprises still) also being ultimately responsible for dealing with ever-increasing cybersecurity threats.

The upshot is that the ideal CIO is the most rounded person in the company, armed with IT know-how, business acumen, people management skills and superlative communications abilities that can translate dense technical concepts into language everyone can understand, and vice versa. It’s an almost impossible, unicorn skillset to develop and stay on top of: as CIO of software giant Adobe, Cynthia Stoddard, puts it, a large part of the challenge is accepting that you can’t do everything, that “this new cross-functional way of working… means that you need to be okay with giving up control,” something she says most of us avoid.

If becoming a super-CIO is the goal, however, it’s important for individuals and organisations to realise that the ambition won’t be fulfilled accidentally. A recurring challenge for new CIOs is that they are expected, from day one, to understand environments and requirements within the business that are unfamiliar to them: to demonstrate leadership not just in rapidly rolling out a new collaboration suite almost overnight, as many did with Covid-19, but to instinctively understand how to manage people and build teams at a distance too.

It’s no wonder that the CIO’s position is reckoned to have the highest turnover in the C-Suite. Not only does the CIO have to deal with many complex, often thankless, tasks, but someone with the right skillset can more or less pick and choose their terms and place of employment. Demand for good CIOs outstrips supply all around the world.

The best place to start

CIOs from a technical background aren’t just the most important people because they have a firm grasp of the infrastructure that drives digital transformation, however. The IT environment is excellent preparation for a role on the exco.

The biggest challenge for all businesses over the last few years, which will almost certainly define 2023 and beyond, is dealing with complexity and uncertainty. There is no respite from ongoing sudden shocks to supply chains, economic forces and working practices that have characterised the business world since before Covid-19.

Successful leaders have learned to reduce their reliance on fixed-term forecasting and instead embrace approaches such as Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. This is a sense-making device that categorises contexts for decision-making into four domains: clear; complicated; complex; and chaotic.

The framework is a way to help leaders apply the correct thinking and decision-making to the situations they deal with, avoiding waste of energy and resources in treating a complex problem like a complicated one or vice versa. This is enormously helpful for CIOs who are dealing with high levels of both technological and human complexity in business.

For a CIO well versed in data centre disaster management and recovery, and leading Agile teams in a DevOps environment, the fundamentals of Cynefin and strong business leadership should come naturally. Just as building in resilience for unexpected downtime is par for the course in application development, so it should be for all aspects of the business – and that is most certainly not the case. Making these connections often requires some help or guidance, usually in the form of a business education, to help connect the dots. The more intentional the preparation, the more likely a good IT manager won’t just be a good CIO, but a great business leader.

The lesson for CEOs is an obvious one: if you aren’t investing in your team to produce holistic CIOs that shine, you’ll pay a premium to hire someone who has the skills you need already as the war for talent rages hot.

But just as there is enormous return on investment for organisations that help CIOs to fulfil their potential, there’s a corollary for current CIOs and IT managers themselves: demand for people who can bridge the gap between IT and the rest of the organisation at the highest level isn’t going away, and the more you can do to help your own team members grow their non-technical CIO skillsets in their own right – even before they are appointed to the role – the more likely you are to find you have their loyalty in a competitive marketplace, or build your own succession plan for the time when you want to pursue new opportunities.

Holistic CIOs aren’t created by accident, so help yours to grow.

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