Leading language

Leading language

Technical experts who step up to the role of chief information officer must learn to communicate and work across two different realms.

I recently attended a Gartner Executive Programs event at which one of our senior analysts presented insights into how the CEO, CFO and other members of the C-suite typically perceive the CIO. It was a forehead slapping moment for me. The research was conducted across five domains – business focus, personality, style, attitude and motivation. It appeared to me the attributes that had contributed to the successful career of the IT professional, and to landing the top job, were the same attributes that the CIO now needed in order to effectively interact at the executive level. As an example, the research indicated that IT professionals are perceived as more sensitive to risk than their C-suite colleagues – an attribute no doubt built on a deep understanding of the business repercussions of system failure, as well as reputational damage to the IT organisation. This conversation started me thinking about the differences between the roles of the IT manager and CIO – and the areas on which a newly-promoted IT manager might focus to ensure their transition to CIO is successful.

Reflecting on my own experience, three main areas of change and challenge come to mind: leaving behind a personal area of expertise; the amount of time needed to build and manage relationships; and learning to work “on” the business rather than “in” the business. It’s interesting to note that each of these challenges is intrinsically interrelated.

Much of the literature about becoming a CIO talks about transforming into a business leader and adopting a strategic perspective of IT. In order to achieve this transformation, the first challenge is to leave behind the specific area of expertise that underpinned success to date – whether that is a technical proficiency, or a skill-set based on business relationships and understanding how work gets done. The newness of a demanding leadership role, and the ambiguity associated with operating at the executive level, can bring with it a personal discomfort that needs to be recognised and intelligently managed.

My own promotion was from the ranks of project management where my knowledge of some parts of the organisation, and the processes and technologies that underpinned them, was deep and precise. I was proud of my expertise and it had been a major contributor to my success. In moving to the CIO role, I encountered a domain that was broad and wide, many areas of which I had no knowledge whatsoever. The shift from a deep, and sometimes narrow, expertise in several areas of the business, to a high level oversight of many areas of the business is challenging and at times painful. It brings into sharp focus the extent to which the CIO needs to trust and rely on the skills, knowledge and advice of others within the IT organisation. The CIO must develop and hold a strategic view and resist the temptation to return to the area of personal comfort, now correctly occupied by other members of the team. Time spent micromanaging the efforts of the team disempowers them and is time spent away from developing essential leadership skills.

The link between this first challenge and the second is strong. In order to operate at a strategic level, the CIO needs a new emphasis on relationship building – both with key members of the IT organisation and also C-level colleagues. Time spent on relationships within the IT organisation ensures those to whom the CIO must delegate are well-credentialed and well-informed – and fosters an open dialogue that supports CIO decision-making. Time spent with new C-level colleagues helps the new CIO build the respect to enable them to lead a meaningful discussion regarding how IT can support and influence the organisation’s strategy.

In dealing with the new peer group, CIOs need to become “bilingual”. They need to be able to switch between IT issues and leadership styles, and business issues and leadership styles as appropriate. A particular challenge for a new CIO is to resist the temptation to limit executive conversations – especially about new ideas. Other executives typically don’t have the level of understanding of organisational processes and technology that the CIO possesses. However, to raise issues and barriers, especially early in an exchange, can be stifling to strategic discussions and identify the CIO as a non-contributor at the business table. The “bilingual” challenge pertains to the CIO maintaining an open perspective at the executive table – and a detailed, pragmatic perspective at implementation.

The third challenge – working “on” the business rather than “in” the business - calls for a change of focus. The new CIO must constantly remind him or herself that the majority of their time now needs to be spent leading IT outside of its traditional technology box and engaging the enterprise in new ways – driving new capabilities, innovations, projects and services. However, a word of caution. Be careful not to pursue this new focus at the expense of operational proficiency. Ensuring the technology within the organisation is effective and efficient is the CIO’s ticket to play. Systems and processes must be functioning optimally before the CIO is able to garner support for more innovative and exciting initiatives.

Mastering these three inter-related challenges will earn the trust and respect of new C-level colleagues. When it’s your turn to sit at the executive table ask yourself these questions. Do I delegate working “in” the business to the experts within the team, am I now beginning to master the wider lens of the new role? Am I spending sufficient time in developing good working relationships with key members of the IT organisation, and importantly as a contributing member of the executive team? Am I leading an optimally-functioning IT organisation that enables me to move my focus to the important work “on” the business? If you can answer yes to these key questions, it’s likely you are making a successful and enjoyable transition to the role of CIO.

Linda Price is group vice-president of executive programmes, Gartner. Email comments to

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