3 prescriptions for the modern IT leader

One of the interesting facets of the digital revolution transforming the modern enterprise is that it’s creating new human challenges and opportunities. The IT head’s role is undergoing big changes due to technology, but those changes require new people skills every bit as much as technical chops. Success or failure as an depends a lot on how well he or she can manage people as well as software and systems.

Gartner calls this new type of IT head a “CIO Leader.” Gartner Fellow Marianne Broadbent and Gartner VP Ellen Kitzis say, “Every CIO will follow one of two paths. The path influenced by the view that IT is irrelevant to competitive advantage leads to a role that might be called chief technology mechanic, a role ultimately no more prestigious than that of factory floor manager. The other path, influenced by the view that IT is at the heart of every significant business process and is crucial to innovation and enterprise success, leads to a role we call the new . The new CIO leader bears all the prestige, respect, and responsibility of other senior executive positions (in fact the position will be a not infrequent steppingstone to COO and CEO positions).”

Mike Hamilton, at MuleSoft, is firmly ensconced in the second path, and believes strongly that IT can step up to become a partner to the rather than supporting the back-office. “The CIO role is changing dramatically,” he notes. “Today, it’s about taking an active role in the way technology makes the business function. IT should be a key ally – a partner to the business, rather than leaving an offering at the altar.” In the past it was all too easy, Mike says, for IT to retreat into its ivory tower and create an artificial divide between what technology does and what the business does. “Rather than defining the business through the systems in use, my role is to understand the actual business processes that move us forward, to see processes rather than systems and therefore seeing opportunity.”

So how can IT leaders be sure that they recast their roles as “CIO leaders,” as partners to the business, rather than just being the fix-it person? Mike prescribes 3 ways to succeed in the IT leader’s new and changing role:

1) Focus on the human side of what you do. Building relationships and the attributes of human interaction has to be your top focus. Learn what your colleagues are doing, what they are worried about, what their pain points are. This is a key success metric: Who do you engage with throughout the week? How do you know what people are working on outside the IT office? If the head of IT strikes up conversations in the lunchroom, at drinks after work, and in other social settings, he or she can help in other ways and learn more about how to be  a partner to the business. This isn’t only a facet of the IT leader but of their staff as well. The engagement between IT and the business happens at every level, not just at the top, and this requires staff that are looking for opportunities at every layer for company success.

2) Take risks. There are a lot of companies that are afraid to go SaaS and afraid to go beyond the firewall. The fear used to be that SaaS increased risk. The reality is that when you compare what SaaS companies are doing with their security programs to the challenges enterprises face with their own programs you quickly realize that SaaS has to be secure to stay alive. The benefits of SaaS generally outweigh the perceived risks. Improvements in efficiency will inherently come from risk. Innovative solutions and ideas require risk. In reality, profit requires risk.

3) Align IT with the business priorities – while keeping the first two points at the forefront of your mindIT has to provide value to the focal points of the business. “So often IT evolves into a dreaded cost center instead of a vital ally. Most of this negative consequence can be attributed to the largely operations role that IT has had to play as technology has evolved,” Mike says. “With cloud services, the operational pressures are increasingly removed allowing IT to focus on driving business objectives forward. To be that vital ally IT has to be a living part of the organization – a vital organ that is connected to business function in meaningful ways. The CIO’s relationships with other leaders in the company are critical.” Everyone in IT has to take this charge to heart so that awareness of needs throughout the company can increase.  The work you do in building relationships and pushing the business forward will create success and will create a sense of enablement in the rest of the business. Do they trust IT, do they want to work with us? What’s our reputation?

If you find yourself in the “fix-it” role, Mike has some suggestions about how to break out of that. “If I found myself in a role where I was relegated to only the tactical needs of the business the first question I’d ask myself is, “why am I only trusted with this?” Mike advises. “If it looks like you’re not engaged, and you should be, you probably need to think about where the business should go and how you can drive that change. What do you know about where the business should be from a compliance, data governance perspective? How are you helping improve business processes? What in your current domain can you change to deliver strategic value? What do you know about the CEO’s objectives and how does your department help move the company in that direction?You have to do some detective work. It’s a mixture of damage control and assessing opportunities. If you’re looking for ways to grow your role within the business, you have to fix what’s been broken. You need to be persuasive inside the business, or you need to find a business that understands how a strategic partnership with IT can be beneficial.”

In the end, Mike says, the important thing is to step up and be a leader – to understand the CIO’s strategic role and to take big steps to create the digital vision for the business. “It’s exciting moving from being an operational resource to being a business driver – it’s a fascinating path to be on,” he says. “It’s important to take risks and be willing to take those on to let the business win. Don’t be afraid!”

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