Over the years I have been asked many times what makes a great technology leader, however, since the roles themselves have changed so dramatically over the past decade, the landscape is constantly shifting. Whatever list of criteria I put forward, there are always other competencies people want to add, usually drawn from their own personal experience, and the list could potentially be endless. Of course, each role is different and the skillsets required do differ, but my own list comprises the skills without which I believe no outstanding CIO can shine. In this article, I have chosen the skill which, in my view, sorts the wheat from the chaff.
Managing complex stakeholders and influencing
Being an outstanding CIO/CDO requires a complex blend of skills of which knowledge of what technology can do to deliver business value, is the simplest to assess. Over the years of interviews, I have conducted with the great and the good (and occasionally the really quite mediocre), the area most technical leaders struggle with is stakeholder management.
Most people would agree that getting the key stakeholders in any decision or programme to agree on what good looks like and provide the necessary support, is critical in getting good outcomes. After all, if the Board cannot agree on what good looks like the chances of getting a positive result down the line are slim to zero. Is it fair then, to assume good CIOs/CDOs would be able to articulate how they go about this most important of tasks? I think it fair to say that this single area has generated more disappointing answers than any other topic I cover at interview. I would love to be a fly on the wall, watching my candidates interacting with senior business leaders to see whether the descriptions I hear actually match reality, but I fear they probably do.
When my colleagues and I in the Digital & Technology Leaders practice meet candidates who have recently been managed out of businesses, we always probe to get the real story of what went wrong. Whilst we are frequently fobbed off with stories of cultural mismatch, an incoming chairman with whom they did not see eye to eye or the perennial “I had delivered everything I originally set out to do and the role had become boring”, on many occasions, poor stakeholder management emerges as the genuine if obscured underlying issue. This might have taken the form of misreading the politics, (or even worse not realising they were in play), the board not feeling the CIO/CDO was “in tune” with them, not spotting where the power sits or simply not engaging with the key business stakeholders.
It is sad and surprising the number of times we hear that a senior technology leader has been removed from their role without them having any genuine insight as to what happened. We can only assume they go on to repeat the same mistakes in other organisations.
Over the years, in order to maximise my candidates’ chances of at least understanding the question, and then, hopefully, giving me a dazzling answer at interview, I have learned to phrase my question very carefully. In the past when I asked them how they influenced board members, almost all would revert to examples that were wholly numbers and logic oriented. The most common of these was that they were able to persuade a board to spend another £Xm on a technology project by putting together a watertight business case. Of course, the ability to conduct due diligence, implement the right level of governance, and put together the numbers to justify an investment is a critical skill for any business leader and in particular technology leaders, who probably own the biggest budgets. Whilst such examples give me some comfort on their commercial acuity (another critical skill), they give me no reassurance as to even the minimum required levels of emotional intelligence and ability to read people.
So, gradually, I started to reshape the question to explain exactly the skill set I was trying to assess, highlighting my desire to hear how they built relationships, gained trust. This bore some fruit and at least now we were talking about people skills rather than numerical problem-solving. The stumbling block here, however, was generally that candidates demonstrated only one style of relationship building which worked well with one particular type of character. When I asked them how they built relationships with different characters, it became clear that they had nothing else in their kitbag. Hence they generally clicked with one type of person, (unsurprisingly often the CFO), but not with others.
I then started to ask candidates to give me a pen portrait of board members, comparing and contrasting their personal styles, before asking them how they went about influencing the different types of character. Candidates, again, frequently focused on describing the CFO and the descriptions were pretty bland and, unsurprisingly, centred on the fact that they were bright, analytical and facts / numbers oriented. “What about the CMO?” I asked, or, “tell me about the CEO”. Again, the descriptions centred around their roles and what they were trying to achieve in their specific organisation. I encourage them to tell me about their personalities, their personal ambitions, who they listened to, how political they were. It is clear that in most cases the majority of candidates have given little thought to what makes these most important of stakeholders tick, and even less to how they interact as a board.
For those candidates, there was a definite propensity to treat the board as a collective, with a common viewpoint on all matters and no sense that they needed to be treated as individuals. Thus attempts to persuade the board to invest in new technologies, engage in technology programs, or even consider the prospect that the organisation was poised for an “Uber moment”, were unlikely to succeed.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m delighted to say, some technology leaders can provide a fascinating insight into the key stakeholders within their organisation, (by far the most interesting piece of our discussions), and demonstrate an understanding that this will impact significantly how they approach each individual. They are able to show an ability to read their reactions to any given comment and adapt their style accordingly. This includes knowing when you’ve dropped a clanger, when to jump in and challenge, and equally importantly, when to bide your time and wait for a better moment. It includes an appreciation that some folk love charts, some prefer to chat informally and definitely an understanding that one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders in advance of the board meeting is a must if the board is to ratify whatever cunning plan you have up your sleeve.
It is a scientifically proven fact that we are all driven more by personal ambition than by our desire to deliver the goods in the name of the organisation which employs us. We are more focused on getting our next role / bonus / personal recognition by peers / whatever turns us on. Some believe that by toeing the corporate line all of these good things will come to us; some don’t. Until we can get to grips with this reality, influencing diverse complex human beings will remain an anathema.
When I share this view with my candidates and ask them to tell me how they adapt their style to influence different types of people many are horrified by the concept, convinced that this means playing politics, lacking integrity and (new kid on the block) lacking authenticity. Their view is “this is me, take it or leave it”. I suspect this naive approach is in great part responsible for the fact that the average tenure of a senior technology leader is short in comparison with other functions; put simply, “they simply don’t get it.”
If a CEO is about to retire, the likelihood of them wanting to kick off a major transformation programme just before they leave is slim. If the MD in China has enjoyed complete autonomy and you suggest implementing SAP to give corporate HQ absolute transparency over what s/he is doing they are likely to be highly resistant. If you suggest canning project which has cost millions but delivered nothing, the project sponsor may well object. Their stance will have absolutely nothing to do with what is good for the company, what is financially logical or best practice in the industry. Their prime motivation will be the impact on their own personal situation, and failure to understand this most human of traits is probably the undoing of the majority of CIOs who don’t make it to year three.
For this reason, I often kick-off my interviews with this question since outstanding answers (even if I have to give some gentle prompting) are generally given by outstanding CIOs and CDOs. It is a hard question and I sympathise with candidates who are struggling to find the right examples and they are certainly not alone. However, it is hard to imagine how anyone who lacks any form of emotional intelligence can engage boards and senior business leaders, who frequently know little about technology and where, sadly, many still have little interest. If we are to maximise an organisation’s chance of thriving in our world of major disruption, it is vital that they have the very best technology leadership to guide them through what will certainly be interesting and often scary times.