By Brian Adams, CIO and Director of Procurement, WorleyParsons
A wise man once said to me, “Brian, there are only two types of people in the world: the maintainers and the changers.” I’ve always chosen to be a changer.
Most of my career steps have reflected my desire to round out gaps in functional and operational expertise. I’ve had marketing, services, manufacturing, and finance roles. I’ve worked at companies ranging from Caterpillar to a mining consultancy to Ernst & Young.
But when I talk about myself as a changer, I don’t just mean in my career moves. I’ve also actively sought roles that provide fantastic change management challenges. When I joined WorleyParsons eight years ago, I first managed strategy and development for the Australia and New Zealand region and then I led the regional finance group as the regional CFO.
In that position, I was forever poking sharp sticks at the IT function, not because they weren’t doing a good job, but because they were not engaged with the business. They were like maintainers. If there’s one thing that has become apparent to me from my years outside IT looking in, it is that IT must be an organization of changers. The enterprise of the 21st century — an era that is (as they say in the military) “VUCA”: volatile, uncertain, changing, and ambiguous — requires an innovative, strategic, and business-aligned IT function, which means the role of a CIO is changing. Our CEO at the time agreed. And he turned me from poacher into gamekeeper, giving me my first CIO role.
I believe this varied background provides me with an interesting perspective on the capabilities that a CIO needs in order to succeed in this new world. We are at a tipping point, and the traditional CIO has to change to meet the demands of the business. If that doesn’t happen, there’s going to be a lot of turnover in the position. As I’ve settled in to this latest leadership challenge, I’ve put together a list of the skills and traits I believe are critical for CIOs leading IT organizations today.
1. Take a Walk on the Non-IT Side
I’ve had a long career outside the walls of IT, which has proven invaluable in my current CIO role. All too often, a CIO will have worked his or her way to the top of what was traditionally a technical function, without a well-rounded knowledge of the business and with little ability to comprehend the complexity of how an organization works. I believe that any IT leader who can spend significant time in non-technology roles will benefit.
Giving promising IT folks the opportunity to rotate in and out of IT to instill that understanding of the business is a great idea. In fact, such rotations are a great idea for employees in any central business-enabling function, whether IT or finance or HR. In reality, however, it can be difficult to implement. Taking a purely technical professional and finding him or her a role in finance or HR or procurement or manufacturing might not work. Once you get to the more senior levels of the IT organization, it’s a bit easier.
But a few progressive companies, like my former employer, Caterpillar, are showing how this can work. They do a fantastic job of moving people throughout various functions so that when they get to the executive level they understand how all the parts come together. That’s what a CEO wants in a CIO. That’s what a CEO wants in any strategic executive. If you’re too functionally specific, you won’t last long. A CIO who’s spent 20 years in IT probably isn’t capable of having a conversation about anything other than IT.
2. Be Business Curious
A CIO who’s a changer, not a maintainer, needs the intellectual curiosity that leads him or her to question how the business works. He or she needs the desire to understand what makes the business tick — even more than what makes IT tick. Where is the money made? Where is the money lost? Where are sales made? Where are sales lost? What makes employees more productive? What makes employees less productive? Those are the questions that should be top-of-mind — not, how do I optimize my storage?
I meet CIOs who get turned on by technology but not by the business. That doesn’t work if you want to be a business-aligned CIO.
3. Speak English
Traditionally, the successful CIO was a technical expert. I am not. And I am happy to raise my hand and say, “I have no idea what that means. Can you explain it to me in layman’s terms?” There is no greater Jedi mind trick for making someone fall asleep than to talk about servers, storage, or — God forbid — network uptime. Unless you can translate the tech speak into the language of the business, being a technical expert can be a hindrance to a CIO today. Yes, you need a fundamental understanding of technology so some IT guy or vendor doesn’t pull the wool over your eyes. But a successful CIO will talk in terms of what IT can do for the business to enable it or differentiate it or come up with differentiated product solutions. Companies today don’t need a CIO who’s a chief infrastructure officer. They need a CIO who’s a chief innovation officer. They don’t care how you’re going to configure your servers to optimize your networks. They care about your ability to bring about change.
4. Have the Courage of Your Convictions
There are still plenty of organizations that assume a CIO or IT manager ought to just do what he or she is told to do. But the new CIO must resist being put inside that order-taking box. It takes a fairly strong character to confront and overcome some of the pushback you get from the business without alienating them. It’s absolutely necessary.
When banks asked customers if they’d like ATMs, they said, “Hell no!” When Apple asked customers if they’d like an iPad-sized tablet, they couldn’t see the value in it. But banks built the ATMs. Apple developed the iPad. And the rest is history.
A CIO needs to do that sometimes — push past resistance to introduce systems or processes that they are convinced will have value to the business. I recently introduced a new communication and collaboration platform. When I talked to people about it, their eyes glazed over. They didn’t want an internal social network. But we pushed ahead, and now it’s widely used, creating fantastic value for the business.
5. Learn Your Financial ABCs
Traits like the desire to understand how the business works or to stand up for the value of IT may be somewhat innate. You either have them or you don’t. There are other equally valuable skills that take a bit more effort to acquire. Having a solid financial understanding falls into the latter category.
You must be able to create a compelling business case for anything you want to do. Modern CIOs have to be commercially savvy about return on investment or they will continue to struggle to convey the value of technology. If you aren’t commercially and financially savvy, IT will never be considered a strategic differentiator in the business. It will be thought of as just another budget item to manage.
6. Get to Know the Other Functions
Clearly, it’s important to build strong relationships with the CEO and COO, whose support you will need for your initiatives. But it’s also critical to have good relationships with all corporate functions. Going beyond just delivering what the function traditionally wants is what we all need to aim for. When talking to Finance, don’t just think of the systems that you need to deliver for accountants; think of how you can help Finance provide valuable commercial insight that will help the business make better decisions. When talking to HR, don’t just think of the traditional systems of compensation and benefits; think of what you can do as CIO to make employees not only more productive but happier in carrying out their work, thereby helping recruitment and retention. When talking to the CMO, help him or her figure out how to gain access to new markets and demographics using social tools, instead of just supporting the corporate web site.
7. Think Strategy First
Many CIOs and IT leaders are smart tactical problem solvers. But a CIO today needs to be capable of having a high-level, strategic conversation about where the company is going. It makes sense for a CIO to be part of the CEO’s strategic growth team. After all, in today’s digital enterprises, there is a strategy piece in everything that IT does. Technology is a critical component to the long-term strategy of the organization.
Many CIOs can’t have that conversation; they’re not even invited to that conversation. They’re incapable of discussing how to raise market share or how to adjust pricing strategies or how to target a new market. A recent survey by Harvard Business Review and Dell found that 75% of CEOs think strategic CIO involvement is key to business success and that companies in which the CEO and the CIO are aligned outperform organizations lacking that alignment by a 2:1 differential.
This research indicates that less than a third of CEOs think their CIOs are “above average.” And of that group, only 40% think their CIO is knowledgeable enough about the business to provide true strategic differentiation.
Today’s CIOs must bring value to the strategy discussion and align IT’s budget and strategy to the business strategy. They must be comfortable approaching the CMO to talk about how IT can help target a new demographic, perhaps sparking a whole series of conversations around apps, social media, digital advertising, and all of those things that the CIO would otherwise never be party to. CIOs who ask the right questions get engaged in more value-adding conversations with the business.
Get to know your peers on the business side. Learn how to think and talk as they do. If possible, become one of them for a while. Understand how what you do fits into the organization’s overall business strategy.
At the same time, know that you are the technology expert. Don’t be afraid to champion a great idea that may not initially make sense to them.
Your adoption of behaviors such as these will help the IT function become something much more than a cost center — and help you become a key member of the CEO’s decision-making team.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 5 (September 2014)
CIOs today need to be “changers” rather than “maintainers.” They need to engage with the business, participate in the high-level strategic conversation about where the company is going, and then help the company get there.
A CIO who has spent 20 years in IT probably won’t be able to play a broader strategic role. It’s imperative to spend time in a variety of non-technical roles, to be curious about what makes the business tick, and to know how to talk about technology in layman’s terms to other functional executives.
Plenty of organizations still assume that the CIO is the person who takes technology orders. But to align IT with the business, the CIO must resist that role and be prepared to make a business case for technologies whose strategic value the non-tech people don’t yet understand.