McKinsey surveyed CIOs in late 2021 and detected a great deal of anxiety when it came to how CIO roles were changing in companies. The McKinsey report quoted one CIO as saying: “I’m more concerned about not being bold enough than about being too cautious.” The report went on to conclude: “For CIOs, the challenge is how to match that boldness so they can not only enable the business’s aspirations for growth but also shape them. That challenge is all the more seminal because even a quick glance under the hood of the top goals of many businesses reveals that their goals are unreachable without technology. Like it or not, CIOs are in the spotlight.”
I’ve visited with several CIOs to discuss this. The majority, coming from technical backgrounds, would prefer like to stay in a technical niche. They are concerned that getting into the business because it is 1) something they're not comfortable with; and 2) a risk, because it means losing touch with the technology side of their jobs, and potentially with their IT staffs.
“I spent a lot of time with the business last year and was hardly in IT,” lamented one CIO acquaintance I have known for more than 10 years, adding “And, I overheard one of my staff members refer to me as a ‘pencil pusher’ who attended IT seminars so I “could practice my buzzwords.”
This CIO decided that he needed to find a more sustainable balance between working with the end business and running IT. Such a balance would allow him to maintain healthy relationships with both users and IT.
He is one of many CIOs facing this two-pronged challenge of being an active and transformative business presence while also spearheading the technological advances and achievements of an IT staff.
How do you achieve a balance that enables you to do both things well?
Delegate, but don't delegate the quality of your relationships.
As their roles in the business expand, many CIOs find that they must delegate more of their -day-to-day IT duties to their managers. However, this doesn't preclude them from “walking around” the IT department and continuing to interact with IT managers and staff members on an individual basis. In these informal visits, CIOs can ask how tasks are going, and listen to new technology ideas.
When IT staff members know that the CIO is listening to them, it can go a long way in forging strong connections. Tech talk also lets staff members know that their CIOs are staying in touch with the work they are doing.
Keep staff informed about your non-IT work.
CIOs must often “run interference” so IT can do productive work. To invoke a football analogy, this “interference” is much like setting blocks so a project can break the line of user resistance or non-participation. To facilitate the opening in the line, the CIO visits with business users, develops cooperative relationships, and advances the perception of IT value to the business in the eyes of stakeholders.
This important work is done in offices, at lunches and in meetings outside of IT, so IT staff has very little visibility or understanding of it.
When I began my CIO career, I didn't think it was necessary to inform staff about the users, board, or stakeholder meetings I had. It still isn’t necessary to fill in staff about every meeting, but it is important to provide your staff with a background into whom you’re reaching out to and how this works into IT projects. This gives staff members better insight into the work that the CIO does, and it builds understanding as to why you are often out of your office.
Bone up on your technical education.
As the CIO role expands, more CIOs are learning the business. However, technology is moving forward, too.
If you're a CIO and you're still striving to learn every new IT tool and programming language, you’re definitely headed in the wrong direction. However, it is your job to stay abreast of new technologies, how they work, and how they can help your company. You should understand them well enough conceptually to be able to have a meaningful conversation with a database analyst, a systems programmer, a network analyst, or an application developer.
Reading technical journals is a great way to sharpen your knowledge, as are occasional seminars. All of these should be part of a CIO’s continuing education.
Learn the business by focusing on pain points.
Many CIOs set out to learn the business by studying financials and learning business operations. Both are important, but you can jump-start your business savvy if you focus first on the key business pain points.
Technology often can solve these pain points, so the faster you can provide solutions and “quick relief,” the more rapidly you will grow your standing and your reputation for business acumen throughout the organization.
Learn the language and the culture If you work internationally.
I once oversaw European IT operations for a semiconductor company. I spent some time in France, where we were having difficulties in a regional office. I was able to make rapid inroads into the situation because I was able to converse in French, and I didn’t insist that the staff speak English.
Unfortunately, there was that one time at lunch when I placed my piece of bread on a plate (the US custom) instead of directly on the tabletop. My French staff was aghast! Their manager had to settle them down by explaining that placing bread on a plate was the US practice.
I learned a valuable lesson from this: It is not enough just to learn or know a language. You must also understand the cultural context of the office you are working with. If you can do both, it goes a long way toward building mutual trust and respect.
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