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CIOs must step into the digital leadership void

Martha Heller | Sept. 23, 2016
In this excerpt from her latest book, 'Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT,' contributor and IT executive recruiter Martha Heller discusses the CIO's role in digital leadership.

Your other option is to see the void as an opportunity and step directly into it. Should you choose the latter path, you have work to do, especially if your CEO sees you as more operational than strategic.

Change your mindset

Aaron Levie, CEO of the enterprise cloud company Box, places CIOs at the center of what he calls “the industrialist’s dilemma,” where companies that have been around for a while rely on big teams, lots of plants, and big equipment—all of which become a legacy drag on innovation. This is true of CIOs and their infrastructure as well. “There is a tendency for CIOs to ask what assets they have and how to repurpose them for a new era,” says Levie. “When really, you have to do away with your legacy environments and vendors, if you’re going to be competitive in this new digital economy.”

Digital leaders need a digital mindset, which is about much more than social media. If you simply must own all of your IT, and you need big teams to get things done, you may not be ready for a digital leadership role.

Get strategic

We all know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which points out that we tend to take care of food and shelter before worrying about socializing and self-esteem. This goes for CIOs as well, who should not waste their time proposing digital strategy if email isn’t working. Being operationally efficient merely serves as table stakes. “Someone once told me that, when your operations are not good, you should not talk strategy,” says Iyer. “Fair enough. But the opposite is also true. If your operations are good, then you must talk strategy. You can always cut more costs, but you need to break off from an ‘efficiency’ way of thinking if you are going to evolve into this new leadership mode.”

Stop serving and start leading

For years, we have been telling our IT teams that the business owns IT projects and that our job, as CIOs, is to support and enable. Sure, we can advise on IT investment strategy, but the business sponsor owns the outcome of those investments. If this is the message we are sending future CIOs, how can we raise a generation of IT leaders? How do we teach IT professionals to serve and to lead simultaneously? “The old story is, IT enables and supports the business, IT is in service to the business, the business owns the project and the job of IT is to deliver,” says Iyer. “That’s what we’ve been telling our IT leadership teams for an awfully long time now. But if CIOs are going to step into a digital leadership role, they need to change that thinking.”


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