The New CIO: Leadership, Innovation and Transformation.

The role of the CIO has often been a coveted one. Those rising in the ranks of IT actively seek the title. But what does the CIO actually do? Many have speculated on what the term CIO really means…or should mean. Yesterday’s CIO Summit in Dallas brought clarity to an otherwise confusing set of objectives. The event was one in a series of events hosted by HMG Strategy (http://www.hmgstrategy.com/).

As the CIO or Chief Information Officer, one often considers the senior most technical leader. That would be somewhat correct in the most basic definition. However the depths of the role go much further. Just as we bring clarity, we also bring an evolution. One might suggest that the evolution is long overdue. Others may suggest that the advent of cloud computing may be the strong influence. Regardless of the catalyst, the change is upon us.

The days of the CIO focusing solely on bottom line efficiencies is over. Today’s CIO is a much more dynamic and complex individual. At yesterday’s CIO Summit, three tenants rose as the pillars of clarity: Leadership, Innovation and Transformation. More than just buzzwords, these three resonated with the audience of approximately 200 CIOs from the Dallas region. Speaker after speaker. Panel after panel. The theme came into clear focus. The role of the CIO today is nothing like that of the past.

It serves best to discuss the evolution of the IT organization itself. Historically, IT is often a technology-driven organization of highly skilled individuals. At times, focused more on the technology than the business that it serves. The organization too must change. The IT organization must clearly understand the business it serves and the real value potential. More on that in a bit.

Leadership has always been a hallmark of a good c-suite individual. However, leadership of the CIO goes well beyond just technology leadership. It is true that CIO’s must still remain the most senior-level technology thought leader. But more importantly, they must be a business leader. The CIO and the organization they lead, must evolve to become a business organization.

At the CIO Summit, discussions centered on the evolution of the CIO role and the attributes that make today’s CIO successful. It is not enough just to manage bottom-line expenses. Yes, that is important. But today they are table stakes. Today’s CIO must also seek out opportunities for top-line revenue growth. The fundamental question being: “How does the CIO, and IT as an extension, drive revenue?”

Today’s CIO must be dynamic, versatile and perceived as a business leader more than an technology leader. The CIO leads the charge of their team while grooming their lieutenants in preparation for their turn in the chair. Succession planning is a key attribute that executive recruiters look for in selecting candidates. How well has the CIO prepared their team for leading the organization? When the CIO ultimately leaves their post for a new one, how well have they prepared their organization for his/her replacement? For example, will the company then have to go out and recruit a new CIO? Or is there a second in line that is ready to be promoted?

Often I hear CIO’s ask “how to get a seat at the table”. That is completely the wrong question to ask. If you have to ask the question, you’re not ready for the seat. As discussed at the Summit, the seat is earned, not entitled. Today’s CIO must seek out proactive opportunities to engage with other c-suite leaders and be clear in their communications. Communication at the executive level was another hot topic. It was mentioned how CIO’s attempt to engage in conversation at the executive level only to miss the mark. Like something out of Dilbert, others hear “blah, blah, blah, business, blah, blah, blah”. The context of the language needs to change too. Fellow business leaders are looking for a business conversation, not a technology conversation. When talking with the CIO, are we talking with a technology guy or a business guy?

The topic of customers came up throughout the day. I have heard CIOs state that their customer is the internal organization. In the discussions yesterday, it was clear that the overwhelming view is that the real customer for IT is the company’s customer. Sure, the IT organization does need to serve the internal organization. But again, those are table stakes. Doing a good job for the internal organization is not what gets commended. It is required. Finding ways to drive the business is what sets today’s CIO and IT organization apart from organizations of the past.

On the topic of innovation, the concept of correlation came up. Business leaders (and IT organizations) do not realize the wealth of data they have amassed. The challenge is converting it into information. How can the IT organization leverage their strength to bring innovation to the business through the use of information? One speaker mentioned the spectrum of IT from ‘ticket taker’ to ‘business driver’. Is IT an organization that only responds to business requirements? Or does it bring the innovation and value to the lead the business to new heights? It is quite a paradigm shift.

The combination of several factors around Leadership and Innovation then start the ultimate Transformation process. The transformation process occurs not just within the IT organization. It takes place with the CIO and ultimately the business itself. Transformational CIO’s are a rare breed today. It takes a different way of thinking and a true visionary to see the path. The execution must follow, as does the evolution.

This is not a simple tale of how to change a CIO, an IT organization or a business. Many hurdles stand in the way. Culture, inertia, and an overall lack of connecting the dots are formidable challenges. The CIO of today must evolve from a conservative position to a risk taker. It was commented that CEO’s did not achieve their role through a conservative approach. They are risk takers. So must today’s CIO.

In summary, we have entered an exciting time for the CIO. The old joke of CIO standing for “career is over” is no longer relevant. This is the time for the CIO to come into their own. The potential for the CIO, the IT organization and business they serve is huge. This is a call to action. It is time for the CIO to shed the moniker of the past and craft a new legacy for IT. The value we bring to our business and customers is only limited by our imagination and ability to execute. This is the time to dream big!