This is Part 3 of an article series based on a conversation about CIOs that I had with Wayne Sadin, a friend and co-analyst in the Acceleration Economy Analyst Network. Wayne has had extensive experience in working with CEOs and other executives, as well as boards of directors.
In Part 1, we explored the importance of getting out of the technical details and being more involved in the aspects of the business that the C-level execs are focused on. In Part 2, we focused on ways to gain the trust of the CEO and the board. In this final article, Wayne shares some practical ways that a CIO can get involved with digital transformation by interacting with other CXOs and department heads.
As CIO of a mid-market manufacturing company, I’ve worked hard to establish my IT team as an important part of the business, working alongside sales, marketing, operations, and finance to reach company goals and grow in the market. It requires a deliberate effort to be viewed as a valuable partner and not just a service provider or cost center that needs to be minimized.
A big part of that effort involves communicating at the highest levels of the organization — the CEO, VP-level staff, and even the board of directors. For CIOs and other IT leaders who, like me, have come up through the ranks of technology-related jobs, establishing those peer relationships with the executives can be challenging. Not only does it require an understanding of the non-technical aspects of your business, but it also requires confidence, polish, and the ability to turn off the “geek speak.”
Kenny: Wayne, we’ve been talking about how CIOs can start to go beyond the technical details and be seen as a businessperson and not just a techie. What if you don’t report to the CEO, but instead report one or more levels down, say, to the CFO or someone like that?
Wayne: You can be a direct report of the CEO and still be a marginalized techie. It is not a panacea to report to the CEO. It’s about being seen as an effective contributor at whatever level you’re at. It’s just easier to affect the broad company when you’re one level up.
Kenny: I see what you’re saying, but it seems like CIOs have a responsibility to bring digital transformation to their company and that can be very challenging when you are not on the same business level with the other CXOs.
Wayne: First of all, IT cannot be the leader of a digital transformation, because digital transformation is about culture and markets and products. However, as a CIO that is listened to, you can influence a digital transformation. You can talk to the C-suite, you can talk to the CEO, and you can talk to the board about two things:
- Risk: If we don’t do this, somebody else will, and they will kill us. It’s the Airbnb or Amazon of your industry.
- Opportunity. You go to the head of R&D or the head of production and say: “This capability that’s emerging” — whether it’s quantum computing or the efficiency of cloud or its new encryption methods — “allows us to change our product in an interesting way. What do you think about that?”
So, you can start putting the idea in people’s minds. Here are risks that we want to be mitigating, that you may not have thought about. And here are opportunities that you could think about in your part of the business. And you can be a very effective behind-the-scenes proponent of both optimization and transformation and be an effective business change agent at the entire company, just by sharing what you know with people.
Because, too often, the head of marketing, who lives in their world and sees things through their lens, may not be aware of the implication of 5G or industry cloud or whatever it is you know and you deal with. It’s a matter of getting the word to them and having them say, “If you really can deliver what you just said, I could turn that into a saleable product, or I could create an augmented product and we could make money from that.” I think at any level, the challenge and the opportunity for the CIO are to be a force for good, to be out there in the business, helping think through the future.
Kenny: Okay, so even before you have that “seat at the table” with the executives, you need to be meeting with them and having creative conversations that influence them to call for change or innovation that you as CIO have the technical knowledge to deliver on. What are some ways that a CIO can begin to bend the ear of heads of other departments?
Wayne: In order to do that, you must have your house in order first. Your department should be able to run without you for an afternoon while you go to a marketing retreat. If you’re a CIO and you have not gone to your factories and been down on the shop floor with a hard hat and steel-toed shoes as appropriate, talking to the people loading the trucks, talking to the people operating the machines; if you haven’t been on a sales call; if you haven’t been in your customer contact center listening to the calls they’re taking, maybe even taking some, then I’ll say to any CIO: “Shame on you. You have to understand the business!”
You ought to understand the products enough that you understand what’s being made on the factory floor. You need to understand what the customer’s issues are. And so, the challenge for all CIOs is to build your capabilities in those areas without losing your technical focus.
Let me tell you one thing that has worked for me: Reach out to the CMO or the CFO or the COO or whatever, and say, “Hi, I’d really like to learn what you do. Would you teach me? Would you spend an hour with me here and there teaching me what you do, letting me meet your team and learning?” Come back and tell me if anybody says no, because I bet nobody will. Everybody wants to talk about themselves. So, take this as an opportunity to learn from those folks who are the experts in your business.
Kenny: Wayne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and share your experiences as an effective CIO. I know that I and other CIOs who are newer and still learning the ropes can use this advice to become more effective CIOs and maybe one day earn that “seat at the table.”
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