Despite the forces of digital transformation, gravity and old norms can pull CIOs back towards the traditional back-office operator role. To become the visionaries we need to be, it’s time to turn the old model on its head.
We live in inspiring times. As CIOs today, we touch, understand and add value to every part of the business. Never before has our work been so relevant to driving its future state and growth. We have a seat at the table and the power to effect real impact.
It’s an exhilarating, yet daunting, position. The pace of change is unsettling, with new technologies and expectations coming from all sides. While we continue to run our own organization, we must also be able to step outside our comfort zones to do things we’ve never done, to learn and contribute to every other line of business—from sales and marketing to human resources and finance.
In a sense, we’re being asked to transform the business by defying gravity. A gravity that often still pulls us to remain in our old role as operators— or “plumbers.”
It’s no mean feat. But by seeing ourselves in a new light, as catalysts, strategists and technologists, CIOs can flip the script and become visionaries who can see past trends, a separate value from vapor and apply the right technologies to propel our organizations into the future.
One of CIO’s biggest responsibilities is to be an agent of change. But if we want others to change, we need to be prepared to do the same. We need to start seeing ourselves not as order-takers, but as catalysts of innovation.
Change isn’t easy. In fact, as humans, it’s something we tend to resist— especially initially—and it’s why we can’t expect partners, employees or executive teams to trust us about shifting the status quo simply because we ask them to.
In my experience, the best way to spark change is through effective communication and transparency.
As CIOs, we need to be able to share our vision in a way that helps others understand why a certain technology will be impactful, why we need to change our approach in a particular area or alter our investment in another. To build consensus and forge lasting partnerships, we must be able to make a compelling business case for our initiatives demonstrate how they will make our company more competitive, our employees more productive or our customers more engaged.
The key here is not only to see, but also to help others see the art of the possible. Change doesn’t have to be perfect but it’s the only thing that will ultimately enable progress.
While some organizations still cling to the CIO as “plumber” mentality, others have embraced CIOs as strategists. And strategic CIOs aren’t just pushing data from point A to point B; they’re aligning technological initiatives to business goals and transforming a former cost center into a revenue-generating profit engine. They’re elevating the conversation, asking questions such as: What more can we do with our data? How can we map it to our business strategy to enhance customer experience, boost employee productivity, gain a competitive advantage?
Our team, for example, is currently utilizing predictive analytics to identify patterns in customer usage data. If we identify an account that’s struggling, the business can be more proactive in contacting the customer to offer support— or even additional services—before that customer decides to head to a competitor. While our primary goal is to increase customer satisfaction and reduce churn, as an IT organization we’re also thinking strategically to create a potential upselling opportunity for the business.
In the midst of today’s digital gold rush, it’s easy to think that being visionary means being the first to do the next best thing. But a truly visionary CIO doesn’t adopt every technology put in front of them or innovate for innovation’s sake. Today’s CIOs need to be able to cut through the noise, truly understand the megatrends, and be the trusted partner that helps navigate the digital disruption and hype cycles that are coming not just at us, but everyone—including the CFO, the CMO, the CRO. It means having the wisdom and grounding to know when something is vaporware—and not being afraid to say it. And that’s where we have to be comfortable in our role as technologists.
Becoming a true technologist means being a continual learner, being curious, looking at emerging and existing technologies with a child’s eye to understand what they mean, what they can do and how we can use them. Take, for example, machine learning. The technology’s been around for decades, but it took visionary CIOs—technologists at heart—to study it, uncover the possibilities and see how they could apply it to solve real business problems.
In all of our efforts to look into the future, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the day to day still matters. And this is perhaps the most humbling aspect of the CIO role. Part of being visionary is not forgetting the basics, the foundation, the genesis of the job itself. We have to be pragmatic and prudent. We can have all the enterprising ideas in the world, but at heart, we are responsible for operating a business, and the entire organization relies on us to execute— because vision without execution is a hallucination.
We know that the natural tendency—sometimes of the organization, sometimes our own—will pull us back to the old norms, back into this operator role. The key to being the visionary CIO that these inspiring times demand is to honor the value of the operational while challenging yourself to go beyond it, to see yourself as a catalyst, a strategist, a technologist, and even a tightrope walker. Because yes, it’s a balancing act. You can’t let anything drop. But if you can do it, you can defy gravity.