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The first CIO of America’s National Football League on the changing nature of the CIO’s job.
By Michelle McKenna-Doyle, SVP and CIO, National Football League
As digital transformations sweep the business world, CIOs are in an increasingly high-profile role. Their first-hand knowledge of digital technologies and their deep experience in IT management and implementation have made them invaluable members of the executive teams in enterprises successfully upgrading themselves to compete in the 21st century.
Technology, however, is simply the foundation for the required skills of digital transformation leaders. CIOs today must transform their own work from primarily running technology infrastructure and driving IT strategy to excelling in a number of additional roles—sales executive, R&D chief, and organizational development consultant. These new responsibilities are changing the nature of the CIO’s job.
The CIO as Sales Executive
Successful CIOs used to be exceptional managers, working inside the organization to develop and execute an efficient and cutting-edge technology strategy. To lead a digital transformation, however, they also need to become exceptional sales executives, building relationships and influencing decision-makers inside and outside the organization.
When I joined the National Football League, or NFL, four years ago as its first CIO, the challenge and opportunity was working with a blank slate, defining what the position should be. I was creating the job, having to sell to the organization my strategic value and why cooperation across the organization was required for a successful digital transformation. It was important to discuss and explain how we are going to maintain our tradition while evolving the NFL to embrace digital capabilities.
During the first year of my tenure at the NFL, I dedicated a significant amount of time to establishing relationships and defining my role as a trusted advisor to all the heads of the lines of business. You can’t underestimate the effort and the importance of doing that, even when the CIO role is not new to the organization, as in my case. A new CIO must assess whether these kinds of relationships existed before and must forge them early—it’s so much easier to do it on the front-end than to try to fix it later.
When you build relationships, when you listen to other executives, just like any good salesperson you should focus on uncovering and identifying the needs and requirements of the business, not on technology. The availability of a certain technology—and we see almost every day new and exciting tools and applications—does not mean it should be used when it does not answer a clearly identified challenge to the success of the organization.
It is also important, as all sales executives know, to first tackle a need that everyone agrees is important to the well-being of the organization. This is especially true in the case of digital transformation. As with any major change, you need to identify the things that everybody can rally around and execute them first, because that buys you credibility when you start to do things that may be more controversial and generate more resistance.
In our case, such a universally recognized need was players’ safety. We developed a video system that tracks and monitors players during the game to instantly recognize a play that could be potentially harmful to the player and triggers a decision to stop the game. In addition, we implemented an electronic medical record system that makes players’ health information available 24 hours a day. In conjunction with that, we gathered data on injuries, to help us think about how to change the game, change the rules, change tackling techniques, and make other changes to ensure players’ safety.
When you lead a digital transformation, selling is not only an inside job. It is very satisfying for me and my staff that we spend a lot of our time actually selling NFL sponsorships. The digital revolution means that what used to be a support function is now an important revenue-generating component of the business. Talk about transformation! And this new external-facing role does not end when the sponsorship is signed, as the sponsors typically ask me to come and speak at their customer conferences.
Part of being a CIO of the future is being comfortable in that role. You have to get out of the data center and become a spokesperson for your organization.
The CIO as R&D Chief
Having established our credibility with some initial successes and our internal reputation as a trusted partner, we were invited to address a challenge that has been hanging over the NFL for years—communications between coaches and between coaches and players. To come up with the right solution, it turned out I had to add another new role for a CIO, that of product developer or, more generally, head of an R&D function.
First, there was a lot of self-development for me and the IT staff. I had to learn about communications technologies and issues—radio frequency, spectrum—that I did not have any experience with before. Then it turned out that we couldn't follow the usual process for a CIO and the IT team of simply evaluating proposals from different vendors and buy an off-the-shelf solution that to meet our requirements. I had to prove to our management that it was necessary to develop the solution ourselves. It helped that we had experience with and data on the limitations of an off-the-shelf communications system we had used for years to enable officials on the field to communicate with the central NFL office. We knew we could not use something like that to allow ten coaches to talk to each other at the same time.
Like other CIOs, I’ve done custom development and built apps before, but this was different—finding one component from one vendor and a second component from another and finding a manufacturer that could put all the components together to our specifications. Most important, we needed to architect the solution for the future, to allow us to proceed from a simple to a more complex system, adding capabilities and incorporating future technologies. We started with only voice communications but made sure the solution will accommodate sending data back and forth in the future.
The CIO as Organizational Development Consultant
Change management has always been the biggest challenge in the business of IT, and it is even more so when you introduce new digital processes and practices. The CIO leading a digital transformation must act as an organizational development consultant who is able guide the team through an often difficult change management process. You need to understand what the transformation means to different constituencies and the best way to incorporate it within existing activities.
My approach is to build consensus by involving everyone, adhering to complete and open communications, and ensuring that the process is fully transparent. You also need to start with pilot testing and continually make adjustments, so by the time you get to the implementation it’s not a huge leap for anyone. For example, we worked with Microsoft to introduce Surface tablets to the sidelines of the playing field, in order to digitize what before was paper-based play formation taken from still photographs. It was a big and uncomfortable change for people to give up the paper notebooks they have been using for years.
The first year we introduced the tablets, half of the teams really embraced it and half stayed with the old way of doing things. We made improvements to the tablets—to make sure they were able to withstand extreme weather and being dropped or stepped on—and worked to improve connectivity a challenge in stadiums where concrete and thousands of people using cell phones hinder good reception.
By the end of last season all the teams were using the tablets. Now we are trying to evolve them to the next stage, pushing video to the sidelines so that coaches can analyze the play in real-time and adjust strategy. Half the coaches want to do it and half think it will change the game too drastically, so we are testing it in the pre-season. We could have gone to video immediately on the tablet but we decided that in the first season we should just replicate the paper process and maybe just enhance it a bit. For example, instead of a static image, you could zoom in and see a particular player’s position, you could circle something that caught your eye and save it for analysis at half time.
If you test and give people of a taste of the new solution and the new way of doing things, if you walk before you run, you increase your chances of achieving a successful change management process and a successful digital transformation.
A big part of this organizational development job is creating new types of jobs so people on your team can take on the new responsibilities required by the digital processes and activities. If you are a product developer, if you are engaged in R&D, you need in IT not just the traditional project managers but also product managers. We had app developers, QA people, project managers, business analysts—the typical staffing of an IT organization—but we needed people who could own the product and manage it.
We also strengthened the concept of business relationships manager, that is, IT account managers who are embedded in the business lines. They work for me but they are very close to the lines of business and are very instrumental in identifying new digital needs. I know I’ve been successful in strengthening this role when it becomes hard to tell who these people work for!
Another important aspect of the digital revolution requiring special attention and new responsibilities is cybersecurity. It’s a whole new frontier now. I hired a CISO, put in a new risk management program, partnered with a security operations firm to do monitoring for us, and instituted extensive training on internal threats. This was all done in close cooperation with the league’s internal security function, because the threats we face in our stadiums often hops from the digital world into the physical world.
CIOs as change management experts, product developers, sales leaders and revenue generators. These are some of the new hats CIOs wear today, additions to their existing skill set and experiences. I’m on two public companies’ boards, and a common topic of discussion is how hard it is to find CIOs who really understand the digital revolution.
Those who do and are able to successfully lead digital transformations acquire skills and expertise that prepare them for the next stage of their careers. Traditionally, the type of work a CIO does offers good training ground for taking on an expanded operations role in a company. But in conversations with a major executive search firm recently, I learned that they’re beginning to look for CEOs among the ranks of capable, digitally-savvy CIOs.
If you are a CIO that is strategically positioned in an organization, someone who helps drive revenues, manage risk, and connect the dots across the whole company, you’re getting great training for a CEO position. The digital revolution not only transforms the enterprise, it can also transform your career trajectory.