It's showtime for IT leadership

On the whole, business executives’ perceptions of enterprise IT’s performance remains largely negative. The recent 2015 McKinsey global research indicates a further decline in confidence that IT is able to support key business activities. Why is this so? Most importantly - what can be done to reverse this trend?

Discussions surrounding the fate, lifespan, make-up and relevance of today’s CIO seem to be never-ending.

While most perspectives are no doubt very valid in the eyes of their respective proponents – be they analysts, consultants or industry media – the common factors underpinning truly successful IT leadership are often overlooked.

The fact remains that effective IT leadership is dependent on a number of fundamental elements, most of which have little to do with technology. These may include:

  • The culture and structure of the organisation, and in particular, how the the IT department is structured within the organisation. For example, the IT leadership competencies for IT organised under a global, hybrid / matrix structure reporting to the CEOs is different to a local business where IT reports to the CFO, and cost and system reliability are the only measures of the value of IT to the business.
  • The IT maturity of the ‘C-suite’ in their collective appreciation of the intrinsic business value of digital technologies. This extends far beyond so called ‘digital literacy’. For example, it is far more important for company directors to appreciate how digital technologies can help their business grow and thrive, than it is to know how to use an iPad.
  • The intrinsic competencies and personal traits of the individual leader that is appropriate for the context and maturity of the organisation at the time. For example, a ‘turnaround’ leader requires substantially different skills to that of a mature, established and large organisation that is relatively immune to change, or even a ‘start-up’.

Recognise that technical skills and industry knowledge alone do not automatically always translate into effective IT leadership.

Rob Livingstone

It’s a different world now. Get used to it

The fact remains that the contemporary demands placed on any IT executive, manager or team leader are different from those of previous decades. These include:

  1. Compression of time. We are expected to make decisions, deliver results in a world that demands immediacy. Minimum viable product, time to market, customer expectations, globalisation and ‘follow-the-sun’ team collaboration are the hallmark of many industries and organisations.
  2. Increasing inter-connectedness within and across organisations. The days of individual departments or business units within organisations operating with relative autonomy are increasingly a thing of the past. For those organisations that are extracting real business value from cross-functional collaboration that cuts across hierarchies and silos recognise this fact all too well.
  3. Fragmentation of the employment landscape. The ability to build long term, trusted relationships between employees and their managers within organisations are eroded with the shift to fixed terms contracts, outsourcing, contracting or a revolving door of consultants.
  4. Rate of technology change. While factors such as big data, mobility, cloud computing and low cost, publicly available compute and storage all have the potential to redefine IT’s value for businesses, many organisations are still struggling to fully realise the upside business potential of these technologies.

Those organisations that recognise their changing environments by honing their situational awareness, will be better able to exploit the new opportunities.

A critical success factor for achieving this is the organisation’s leadership capabilities. Period.

IT leadership: Importance without influence?

According to the latest research from McKinsey, a significant majority of today’s IT departments play no active role in shaping the overall business strategy or in growing the business. More pointedly, business executives’ perceptions of enterprise IT’s performance remains largely negative.

The reality is that many IT functions are struggling to keep up with their own organisation’s demands, let alone positively contribute to the growth of the business.

Why is there this disconnect?

Recognise that technical skills and industry knowledge alone do not automatically always translate into effective IT leadership.

There’s a compelling business case for transforming IT from a reactive technical service centre into a high-value, proactive and strategic enabler for the entire organisation. This business case hinges on effective, engaging and contemporary IT leadership capabilities.

Question is: What value do your organisation’s owners and directors place on any investment made – if any – in updating their IT and business leadership’s capabilities?

Rob Livingstone, principal at Rob Livingstone Advisory
Rob Livingstone, principal at Rob Livingstone Advisory

Rob Livingstone ( is a mentor, consultant, and industry advisor. He is the author of Direction through Disruption and Navigating through the Cloud. He is a fellow of the University of Technology, Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and IT, where he lectures to higher-degree students on leadership, strategy and innovation.