The transformational CIO

When meeting boards to discuss their need to hire a CIO/CTO, the first question my colleagues and I always ask is on the need for evolution versus revolution in the technology function and what it delivers. Clients are often reluctant to admit that they are seeking a slower tempo of change since they fear seeming complacent or lacking ambition, but no organisation thrives in constant chaos so the desire for gradual change should not be dismissed as untenable. It is fair to say, however, that the vast majority of organisations we speak to range from fairly to extremely disappointed with their technology functions and so are crying out for “transformation”. Often, once the word has been articulated, there is an assumption that no more needs to be said and that we should now understand the brief fully, be able to hit the streets and find the perfect CIO.

Fast forward three weeks – we are starting to meet benchmark candidates, or perhaps we are meeting a CIO who has requested a general meeting with us to explore career opportunities. Our first question is always around their aspirations – what would the perfect role look like for you? I am fairly sure that if you asked every CIO headhunter on the planet, they would tell you that the answer is almost always identical: There is often a short pause as if contemplating the question for the first time, and then… “I am really looking for a role in a company that wants to transform technology” (cue another pause while they let us absorb this ground-breaking revelation). Some are cognizant of the fact that this is rather a cliché and acknowledge it with a wry smile but others are genuinely surprised when we don’t immediately prick up our ears, lean forward and start furiously taking notes.
CIOs are usually pretty dismissive of other CIOs, (more than any other functional leaders when benchmarking their peers), and genuinely believe that they are one of only a tiny pool of change agents. Thus, we rarely hear CIOs speak well of others in their field. The average CIO might well be shocked if s/he heard the descriptions we hear of the technology function they have left behind – we are always told it was in a shocking state! Thankfully, their successor has rescued the car crash, lifted and inspired the downtrodden team and it’s in much better shape now (Thank Heavens!).

Obviously, at this stage of the interview, we would like to hear what transformation they have delivered in their current organisation. The answers range from the sublime to the ridiculous and definitely sort the wheat from the chaff. Some years ago, we met a FSTE 100 CIO who had been with the same organisation for over 25 years. This in itself is intriguing since the average tenure of a CIO is two to three years. He told us that he had created a company portal and consolidated the data centres. We resisted the temptation to ask him what he had been doing for the other 24 years. Nonetheless, he saw himself as an agent of transformation. This, of course, begs the question how much and what type of change would a CIO have to have delivered to be described as a genuinely transformational CIO.

It is our strongly held belief that there are many “flavours” of transformation; all vital on the journey to technology excellence and inspirational leadership but, nonetheless, very different. Every CIO story is unique in terms of their deliverables, specific to one organisation at a single point in time, at a single level of maturity and weathering specific external and internal forces. However, the nature of the technology transformation required can usually be described in three broad bands. Below is a brief description of each:

For some of our clients, it would be fair to say that their technology function is “broken”. This is probably indicated by low calibre teams, disconnected from business leaders and delivering poorly defined projects with unmeasurable outcomes, late and over budget. Core systems are unreliable, often preventing business from functioning normally. A good example would be one of our retail clients who regularly turned customers away from high-value transactions because the relevant store systems were down. Had their IT systems been strong enough, they would probably have been able to tell me how much business was lost due to the downtime but, sadly, no such data was collected or analysed. Did this firm need technology transformation? Certainly. They needed somebody to come in and fix the basics. Once this was done it most certainly felt transformational to them.

The second description applies to most of our clients who, whilst dissatisfied with what technology is delivering for them, if they were absolutely honest, would agree that their technology was not actually “broken”. Perhaps a better description would be “not fit for purpose”. Diagnosing what type of CIO would be right for these organisations is possibly the most challenging task since such a broad range of clients fall into this category. Generally speaking, issues revolve around the inability to extract value from significant investments in technology; a disconnect between project deliverables and very dynamic business needs; a general sense that the CIO is not a peer/trusted adviser to the board and technology teams suffering low morale and lack of direction due to weak leadership. There is no question that the organisation is looking to transform in terms of IT organisational structure, quality of talent and ability to create a compelling technology strategy to deliver business goals. They may now be ready to collect, analyse and even sell their data to other firms seeking levels of customer insight previously unthinkable. They want to know their customers inside out.

Finally, what of those organisations who have addressed these issues and already have good technology, good people and a strong track record of delivering and absorbing change? What if they still have an appetite for world-class technology which will deliver new business models and a unique edge that will take their sector by storm? What can we offer them? Do they still require transformation? Absolutely. To create an Amazon, Uber or Airbnb requires a technology leader who wants to transform the very essence of what retail/transport/hospitality is all about. They want to transform the customer mind-set and create a new level of expectation so that the customer no longer regards anyone else in the sector as a viable option. Nirvana – the unique, compelling and unreplicable proposition – all fired by technology.

So, back to our “transformational” CIO. I firmly believe the reason for the fast turnover of so many CIOs is rooted in the misunderstanding of the breadth of what the word transformation spans. Clearly, the CIO that likes to fix broken infrastructure (step one) and implement ERP (step two) is not the same person who will thrive in an organisation where they seek sophisticated data analytics (step three). And this person is probably not the mind-blowing strategic thinker that will persuade the board to leap out of their comfort zone and create a completely new concept or product (step four). Yet all of these CIO “types” can be (and certainly do describe themselves as) transformational.

In my opinion, lack of differentiation between these very distinct groups has led many firms to put the wrong person in the wrong job. It is dangerous to put an over-qualified, strategic thinking driver of change into an organisation which is clearly not ready/lacks appetite for such a journey. It is equally dangerous to hire a CIO only capable of upgrading IT if what you were hoping to achieve was a new business model enabled by technology.

Whatever type of CIO your organisation needs today, if they are genuine change professionals, they will probably want to move on after a few years (unless you are planning to offer them a business unit to run). This may feel like the end of the world if they have delivered great things. It probably means you are ready for the next iteration of change and a fresh pair of eyes. This also provides an opportunity to reassess the change agenda and ensure you have the right man or woman for the job.
For CIOs, I also believe a good dose of honesty and self-awareness is the order of the day. Of course, it is possible to move between the categories but you need to start by understanding where you fit in today. Taking on a role which is too much of a stretch is almost certain to result in failure which can be disastrous both in terms of career and self-confidence. Certainly, before you decide that you have delivered as much change as your organisation needs, please do reflect on whether you have merely fixed the basics or whether this organisation has genuinely reached the pinnacle of what it can be and is fit for the future.

The overuse of the word transformation when describing fairly basic change has done nobody any favours. Of course, there is no going back now, and it is hard to imagine any role specification avoiding regular usage of the term. However, a little more sophistication in defining what is actually required will help organisations, CIOs and even headhunters make better choices. Perhaps we will even manage to lengthen the tenure of CIOs and improve the perception of this critical function, as a whole.

About the Author

Partner, Digital and Technology Leaders Practice
Cathy Holley co-heads Savannah’s Digital & Technology Leaders Practice with Vicky Maxwell Davies. Cathy was also co-creator of the Savannah/CIO Development CIO mentoring programme and speaks at the top industry events for organisations such as Gartner, Deloitte, Leading Edge Forum and the Digital Transformation Club.
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