The message is coming in loud and clear from every corner of the tech and business sectors, from every career coach, hiring manager and trusted peer: IT pros who are serious about advancement need to think and speak strategically.
Keeping the lights on? Yawn. Transforming business processes? No-brainer. What organisations need in an IT leader now is a business strategist who can serve as a trusted colleague of, rather than merely a tech adviser to, C-suite executives.
"There has been a great movement toward strategic CIOs as executive teams recognize the crucial role that IT plays," says John Baldoni, chairman of the leadership development practice at N2growth, a Wilmington, Del.-based management consultancy.
Having being invited to the table, IT leaders need to contribute more than just operational expertise, says Baldoni, who has written several books on leadership. "It's not just 'What kind of tech solutions can I present?' it's knowing the mission, vision and values of the company, understanding its strategic imperative."
The message is getting through to IT professionals. In an exclusive Computerworld survey of 489 IT professionals conducted in August and September of 2013, respondents said the top three non-IT skills that they believe will make them most valuable are leadership and strategic thinking (cited by 24% of those polled), connecting with customers (16%) and analytical thinking (15%).
Moreover, 52% of the respondents said they believe the skill set that will best advance their IT careers is a business or soft skill, 32% said it would be an IT or technical skill, 12% said a skill that's specific to their industries, and 4% said they didn't know.
That said, IT professionals can be forgiven for wondering how they're supposed to add "articulate strategic imperatives" to a to-do list already overflowing with managing their teams, interacting with business partners, wrangling with vendors, budgeting, benchmarking and, as always, spinning up systems and services efficiently and effectively.
And even once they do manage to shift their mindset from functional to strategic, how do they convey that transformation, short of busting into the boardroom, Buddy the Elf-style, and shouting their ideas to a table of stunned executives?
Computerworld interviewed several seasoned CIOs to discover when they first emerged as business strategists and how they share that vision, both with their IT staffers and their C-suite colleagues.
The good news, the CIOs agree, is that IT pros are well positioned to learn how to both think strategically and speak strategically.
"Tech is actually a great career for strategic perspective," says Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia, a Montreal-based firm that develops customer loyalty programs for clients worldwide.
"I always said, 'I don't want to work in IT' — I was extremely interested in business processes, in how a business functions," says Doniz, who came to Aimia from Procter & Gamble Canada, where she was CIO. "But my path led me through tech, and it ended up being a good fit." Particularly in global organizations where technology touches every department and function, "you can see every part of the company — logistics, R&D, sales, international." That perspective, Doniz says, is a crucial element to building strategic insight.
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