How CIOs become successful digital leaders

CIOs have to prove their digital initiatives in stages, in order to eventually become a digital orchestrator.

The common consensus among CIOs is that digital is not just about technology, it is about processes and people too. Perhaps more importantly, the idea of digital transformation is about creating an environment which enables the organization to adapt to any situation, making changes to their technologies, processes or people in order to ensure competitiveness.

As CIOs are often leaders of this change, they have to become more than technology experts, and they must additionally become cross-functional change-makers.

“In an uncertain environment, it’s about embracing the mindset, technology and capabilities to drive change,” Gartner says.

That’s easier said than done of course, but there are several considerations that CIOs should make in order to become successful digital leaders. While these considerations should have been made prior to the pandemic, CIOs should be even more focused on these factors now, as they try to navigate their organizations through the toughest period of uncertainty they’ve arguably ever faced.

Becoming a CIO “partner”

Consultancy McKinsey says successful CIO leaders are communicating clearly, taking care of their people, driving new ways of working, shifting processes, stabilizing their core systems and – perhaps crucially – trying to anticipate what comes next.

The first two points are critical; while there has been required focus on customer experience in the past few years, it is up to an organization’s employees to make that experience a reality, and so they need to feel involved, understood and engaged from the outset.

...the CIO must build trusted partnerships – becoming a communicative “CIO partner” within their business...

To make this a reality, the CIO must build trusted partnerships internally and externally – becoming a communicative “CIO partner” within their business. Gartner says that half of CIOs state that they’re considered partner CIOs by their business counterparts; building relationships with the CMO and CFO, among others, is crucial. By doing so, CIOs can be trusted advisors to these other departments, and help the entire organization to collaborate on a digital environment that can help with times like these where uncertainty is prevalent.

To build on this trust, the CIO must prove that the technology strategy aligns with business goals. University of Sussex CIO Jason Oliver is one of many CIOs that believe in the mantra of having a business strategy rather than a technology strategy. This can help the CMO to work together with the CIO on the technology platforms that are required for customer experience, ensuring that the marketing team is best equipped, while also adhering to the IT team’s requirements for security, governance and integration.

Focus on creative thinking and the customer experience

Digital leaders need to provide value to their business counterparts through creative thinking; the ability to create and realize innovative solutions, especially in the face of structurally complex or changing situations. While during a global crisis, the initial plan may be to focus on remote working and maintenance, CIOs have to pivot towards new approaches that can help the business thrive in these difficult times. They must do this while still being able to create clarity of purpose for their teams.

For instance, CIOs have to ensure that customer experience continues to be a focus – if anything the pandemic has made it clear that customers value the interactions they’re having with brands now more than ever. To be able to do this, organizations have to understand what their customers need at different points of their customer journeys.

Multi-channel data from business applications, data warehouses and lakes, devices and other sources need to be combined and analyzed to create a 360-degree view of a customer, so that brands can engage with the customer with relevant experiences and through their preferred channels, to enhance and retain customer loyalty. Much of this will rely on powerful artificial intelligence and machine learning tools that allow personalization to take place at scale and speed in real time.

By having this connectivity and interaction with customers, companies can prepare for uncertainty and anticipate what’s next. This is just one example of a set of technologies that promotes business agility and adaptability, but there are numerous technologies that CIOs may want to consider to digitally equip the organization. The hard part of “digital” is not the technology, but the transformation itself.

The 3 stages to digital leadership

“It’s not really a technology challenge but a leadership challenge,” says George Westerman, principal research scientist with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

According to Westerman, great leaders will be able to build relationships, have the vision, communicate well, negotiate the governance processes, and build momentum and keep that momentum going.

“[Great leaders] have a constant dissatisfaction with the state of things,” he says, adding that they also have an ability to constantly reenvision how processes can be changed.

Throughout this piece, the discussion has been around constant change and innovation, and this is why it’s important for CIOs to see their evolution as a digital leader in three key stages, highlighted by Gartner.

Stage 1: The initiation model

This is where the CIO creates a buzz, educating business leaders, and leading people, process and technology changes.

Stage 2: Becoming a catalyst for change

The CIO will move from evangelist to catalyst, helping to accelerate this model and exploit business opportunities.

Stage 3: The digital orchestrator

The final model is where the CIO has effectively become the “digital orchestrator,” that has helped every leader in the organization to become a digital leader in their own right, with the technology resources to complete the vision.

While technology itself cannot provide value on its own, new infrastructure and applications can help CIOs to change the way a company works. Subsequently, the business will be future-proofing itself, enabling the CIO to step away from the day-to-day firefighting, and allowing them to become digital leaders that can spend their time on customer-focused digital transformation.