6 traits of highly effective CIOs

6 traits of highly effective CIOs

As we leap feet first into 2018, digital disruption remains par for the course, and technology continues to spread into all aspects of the business. In this fast-evolving world, CIOs also have to evolve and acquire an increasingly  broad set of skills in order to maintain – or, preferably, to grow – their influence in the business. In short, it’s about effective leadership. As William D. Confalonieri, CDO of Deakin University, writes:

“For the technology leader, this is a time for courage and deep conviction. For many it will mean professional reinvention, as it is essential to move well beyond ‘back of house’ IT operations, infrastructure and platforms. The CIO role now must be to assist the business to reinvent itself from the front-end for the “connected” generation of customers. This is the time to be a forceful innovator, with a very clear vision of how technology will transform your business, and with the muscle to make it happen.”

If you’re serious about being an influential leader and succeeding in 2018, we’ve got some effective leadership tips for you.

Does your succession planning include these 6 traits?

1. Highly effective CIOs understand the business inside and out

To be a successful CIO in 2018, it is no longer about just being a technology expert, but being highly knowledgeable about all aspects of the business as well. After all, if you don’t know the inner workings of your business, how can you help it reach its organisational goals by supporting its technological needs?

“If you focus specifically on the technology without knowing what the business objectives are, you’re not going to be in the best position to know how best to leverage technology,” says Arizona State University CIO Gordon Wishon. “You really need to understand the business problem the company is trying to solve to be able to recommend how the technology can be leveraged.”

A healthy curiosity is also a big asset to today’s CIO, as meeting your business’s needs may very well involve investing in new skills, as well as staying on top of current trends. “I ask my peers how much they’re investing in education on basic analytics, forecasting, and modeling, so they can answer a question for a business partner who wants to understand churn, for example,” says Keith Collins, CIO for SAS. “The responses are mostly blank stares. Shame on IT, and shame on CIOs, if they don't help their companies analyse data without creating a separate organisation that becomes another quagmire of who owns what.”

2. Highly effective CIOs put the customer first

Businesses are now more customer-centric than ever – so, naturally, CIOs should strive to be customer-centric in just about everything that they do.

It was this thinking that propelled Rob Craig, Chief Operating officer of icare NSW, to sixth position on CIO50 2017.

“With the predecessor of icare (NSW Work Cover) designed to operate solely through third-party providers, direct interaction with customers was not in the DNA of employees who had been part of the previous organisation,” says Craig. “I was central, not only in driving the customer-led solution, but also inspiring employees to think and behave with customers along with icare’s new values – integrity, courage, accountability, respect and empathy.”

Under Craig’s  stewardship, icare rolled out several multi-channel tools, allowing employers to renew a policy or purchase a new one directly, manage a policy and claims easily online, and directly asses icare’s support team. The results speak for themselves: since the launch of the program in April 2017, more than 1000 new businesses were switching to the online system every day, bypassing brokers and other third parties.

Ingrid Lindberg, CXO for Cigna Health, puts it in more blunt terms: “If you’re a CIO who hasn’t made the realisation that we are multiple years into the age of the customer, then it’s time to shop for a new job.”

3. Highly effective CIOs know when to take risks and when to shy away from them

CIOs can have a tendency to be somewhat risk-averse, but when it comes to true innovation, this often means taking risks, rather than shying away from them.

This is not to say it’s about breaking all the rules – after all, the rules are there for a reason. Being a savvy business leader is knowing when to colour within the lines, and when to colour outside them.

It’s also crucial that CIOs are able to mitigate risks, as Bill Le Blanc, CIO of SA Health, knew. He recently led the implementation of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH), opened in September 2017, billed as the most technologically advanced hospital in Australia, with digital disruption affecting just about every area of the business. Such a huge project of course comes with many risks, not the least of which was how the staff would learn to use the technology, while still working their day jobs at the old hospital. To address this challenge, Le Blanc came up with several initiatives, including building mock patient rooms and operating theatres, and establishing a skills centre at the old RAH, where staff could get hands-on experience with the new technology. This ability to manage risk was just one of the reasons he took out the coveted top spot in CIO50 2017.

Another important aspect of risk-taking is being open to embracing mistakes as the means through which an organisation grows. This is an ethos that Simon Noonan, CIO of Sportsbet – and no. 9 on the CIO50 2017 – lives by. One of the most integral cultural changes he has initiated, he says, is the creation of a learning environment called ‘The Academy’, which enables the tech team to develop in an agile way without fear of making errors. “Our teams now have shared goals, ownership, reduced feedback loops, less handoffs, long-lived delivery teams, and a reduction in context switching. By moving away from working in silos, we’ve been able to inspire a culture of growth and innovation, as well as building solid relationships between team members,” he says.

4. Highly effective CIOs are prepared to take hits

Hand in hand with taking risks is the ability to stand strong in the decisions you make, and defend them if necessary.

This is exactly what Le Blanc had to do when faced with highly vocal critics of the new RAH, and he took it upon himself to defend his team’s work. “When this happens in our environment, my highly skilled and deeply committed staff feel they are being publicly attacked for the great work they are doing and it is important they see me at the forefront of defending the digital transformation program,” he says.

5. Highly effective CIOs know how to network and build relationships

In order to be an effective CIO today, it is important to come out from behind the desk and connect with the people around you, whether that’s by motivating your employees, engaging with stakeholders, liaising with clients, or networking with peers at events such as CeBIT.

“To be successful, today’s IT organisation requires a high level of rigour in disciplines that build bridges with business functions and deliver superior strategic outcomes,” writes Confalonieri. “An expanded team including business analysts, solutions architects, project specialists, process designers, customer specialists and change managers is required to make any IT solution relevant.”

To manage such an extended team, get senior management onside and have employees do their best work, relationship building is essential. “Take the time to develop good relationships with everyone you come into contact with and, at some point, you’ll find that it will be returned back to you manyfold,” says Kerry Hollings, CIO of Western Sydney University. “For example, there have been multiple occasions when being on a first-name basis with everyone, from my own staff through to the on-site security personnel, has been of tremendous value, because, when a crisis strikes, you never know what help you might need.”

6. Highly effective CIOs prioritise culture

As well as having a strong ability to build relationships, effective CIOs are also highly focused on creating a culture that not only fosters innovation, but also attracts talent. This is something that is becoming increasingly important as IT recruitment becomes a bigger challenge for organisations.

Airtasker needs no introduction, and much of its success can be attributed to its highly agile workforce. In order to keep its workforce motivated, chief technology officer Paul Keen sees his role as being a mentor, rather than a dictator. Employees are organised into smaller feature teams, focused on particular customer groups, allowing them to be completely autonomous, as well as “keep the nimble startup roots of building, testing and iterating quickly”. Teams also have ownership over their own development and team-building activities, with budgets “to do things out of the ordinary, from cooking classes to axe throwing”.

“At Airtasker we focus on three main areas: to like and be inspired by the people you work with; to work on things you think will make a difference; and growth in terms of your day-to-day on the job learnings and formal growth,” says Keen. “Our belief is that without focusing on all three pillars simultaneously, our team won’t be fulfilled in their role.

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