Business CIOs Urgently Needed – But Most IT Leaders Still Don’t Get It!

May 16, 2017

I seriously believe that every growth-minded mid-sized business will appoint a Chief Information Officer (CIO) within the next 3 years!

And not just any CIO, but a real business-savvy leader that knows how to create business value from technology and who is respected at the highest levels for strategic business contributions.

Even more contentious is my firm belief that most current IT leaders will not be ready to step up when the time is right.



Their CEOs will look elsewhere... and a massive growth opportunity will have been squandered!

And if you don't believe me, just talk to Alana who is sitting next to me in the office and every day talks to IT Managers and CIOs all over South Africa who are just too busy to realise their world is about to change dramatically.

Read on if you want to learn why I feel confident to make these bold predictions.

I'll also outline a 5-point plan for what I believe IT leaders should be doing to prepare for this amazing opportunity that is hiding in plain sight.

But first, we need to better understand the reality of CEOs everywhere.

What Do CEOs Really Want from IT?

To really understand what CEOs are concerned about, one has to look at the world around them and understand what potential risks and opportunities their business will face over the next few years.

Something that immediately jumps to mind is the question of how the business will be affected by digital disruption as well as how it could potentially leverage digital capabilities for its own competitive advantage.

The Global Center for Digital Transformation recently concluded that digital disruption is like a vortex.

In their analogy, every industry is inexorably caught up in this vortex and is being pulled ever-faster to the center where everything that can be digitized has been digitized and where businesses are intrinsically agile and operating under the assumption that the only constant is change.

The only difference between various industries in this model is how close they are towards the center of this vortex, which is a measure of how affected they are today by the forces of digital disruption. 

And as this IBM Study of Global CEOs shows, leaders are clearly aware of the existential threat of digital when considering how they prioritise the most critical factors impacting their businesses.

Unfortunatey there is a bit of a delay between what large-business CEOs are thinking and what mid-sized business CEOs themselves worry about.

The physical location of the business obviously also plays a major role and we in South Africa are shielded somewhat from what currently happens in the US and other modern economies.

Even so, however, this is rapidly changing and there is growing awareness amongst South African CEOs of the threats and opportunities presented by digital.

And not a single person I know wants to be left behind!

What many of them are starting to realise is that they cannot just focus on the technology but instead have to become a digital business over time (see this blog for a good introduction as to "What is Digital?"). Stated differently, they are in the beginning stages of realising that they have to learn how to be a lot more agile in the way they run their business (see "The Speed of Agility" for some background) in order to stay in the game and have a chance at moving ahead of the competition.

Fortunatey for their IT leaders, in most cases they are still in the initial stages of this process and hope their IT can rise to the occasion and help the business move forward.

What Do Most IT Leaders Think Their CEO Wants?

IT leaders on the other hand experience first-hand what it means to be disrupted.

Not only has the IT industry itself changed dramatically over the last few years (as would be expected for the number 1 disrupted industry in the Vortex), but the demands on the average IT manager and CIO have grown exponentially.

And what do IT leaders everywhere do?

You guessed it, they just work harder ... and harder ... they take on many more projects in the process (as everything is becoming more digital) ... and, if they are lucky, they are recognised for being capable delivery agents when it comes to all things technology.

If they are unlucky they burn out and soon resign to look for a different employer where the entire, self-destructive cycle starts again.

What very few IT leaders realise is that what they have done to date in terms of keeping the lights on has become "table stakes" and just doing more of this is not going to earn them a seat at the table.

Instead, what CEOs will increasingly look for (but many don't yet realise), is an IT leader that can operate at their (strategic) level and help them navigate an increasingly uncertain future.

While IT leaders today still have a chance to become that person, the longer they wait, the more pronounced the expectation gap will become and the less likely they will be ready when the business finally decides it is time to look for a high-level CIO.

The Expectation Gap Between CEOs and Their IT Leaders Is Widening!

Most businesses today experience an expectation gap between business and IT leaders.

In fact, this is the very reason why we decided to found Xuviate.

Since IT, however, is usually not seen as anything else than a support tool by the rest of the business, this gap is perceived as little more than a time-waster as it consumes management attention. 

But this is about to change as senior business leaders continue to demand more and more of their IT as they come to realise that they don't just need more technology, but new digital capabilities and more agile ways of operating, to stay competitive.

As pressure on IT mounts exponentially (since each function adds their own demands), it will soon become painfully obvious that the traditional IT leader (who is still focused on just getting the work done) will not be the person that will help the company transition to the future.

At that point the search for a new CIO (from the outside) will become unavoidable and it is easy to see why both the business as well as the incumbent IT leader will lose in the process.

Even though I stated earlier that most companies will appoint a business-savvy CIO within 3 years, I firmly believe that most growth-driven SMEs will reach this stage a lot sooner.

The trick for the present-day IT leader is to pre-empt the exponentially increasing business / IT expectation gap by getting started on a personal and professional transformation journey which will prepare them for a strategic leadership role within an acceptable period of time.

5 Critical Steps Any IT Leader Should Take to Deliver More and More Business Value

Even when faced with all of this information, some IT leaders are entirely content to do nothing.

They are happy with being the technology custodians (also known as "techies") of the business, and this is absolutely ok.

There are some, however, that are eager to seize the opportunity and move forward.

If this is you, let me tell you about the 5 critical steps I believe you have to take to have a good chance of stepping into the CIO role when the time is right.

Although the process is simple to understand, it is by no means easy to apply as it requires you to step outside your traditional comfort zone.

1. Understand the CEO / IT Leader Problem Clearly

Your first step is to deeply understand the predicted mismatch between the rapidly increasing business leader expectations of IT and the expected future IT capabilities based on how most IT leaders are behaving today.

And even in scenarios where this gap is not yet very visible (perhaps because the CEO grew up in a previous age?), it is still essential to believe that what I am writing about will happen and that the only uncertainty in this is how long it will take (which mostly depends on where the business finds itself on the Digital Disruption Vortex).

2. Estimate How Much Time You Have Until a Business CIO Will Be Appointed

The next step is to estimate how much time you have until your CEO and other senior business leaders reach the tipping point and require a business-savvy IT leader (as compared to a traditional, technical IT leader).

If this point has already been reached, you are out of time and have to accept your role as just the "technology manager".

This means you will have to support somebody else who will be tasked with transitioning the business into a more digital future. 

Hopefully you will be able to learn much from the new CIO and can apply this knowledge at a different company.

If you still have time, but really have no idea how much longer, a good starting bet would be to give your business 2 years until it reaches this tipping point.

This is then how long you have to get ready!

3. Decide to Capitalise on Rapidly Growing Business Expectations of IT

Now that you know how much time you have before your current business needs a true CIO, you have to decide whether you really want to do the hard work to position yourself as the obvious CIO candidate for when the time is right.

Unfortunately just making this commitment without also immediately asking yourself what you will do differently to achieve this goal, however, will go the same way as so many new year's resolutions that people make - and that is absolutely nowhere.

To prevent this from happening, I always find it useful to pull out Stephen Coveys Time Management Matrix. He says that each one of us should aim to operate as much as possible in the yellow block of "Important, but non-urgent", but that unfortunately the three other blocks constantly conspire to keep us away from this.

With such a mental tool in place to protect our time, the next step is to accept that you will probably need help.

Existing habits and practices that have served you well in the past, need to be reviewed and often replaced with mindsets and approaches ready for a more strategic role.

To get started, I strongly advise you find some sort of guiding framework that you can adopt and adapt to your particular needs.

Although you can use any equivalent digital transformation framework or learning material, I will use our own Xuviate DX Maturity Framework to highlight some of really big benefits that come from adopting such a tool:

  1. You will learn that digital transformation is a journey and that every business is trying to work towards what is defined as the "Agile Business" stage (this helps you articulate a clear, strategic vision for a more digital future).
  2. You will also learn that you need to reach the strategic stage (Stage 3) by the time your business needs a business-focused CIO (lets say within 2 years).
  3. A simple check should confirm your business's current stage of digital transformation (DX) maturity (for most businesses, this would be stage 0).
  4. Knowing the current state also immediately points to what you next have to focus on (for most businesses, this would be to get to stage 1) and how much time you have to move through the various stages.
  5. And the really good news is that you are not alone as there is a wealth of supporting documentation, helpful tools, peer-groups you can join and of course the comfort of knowing that there is ongoing research to include the latest thinking. 

Nudging your business along such a path, however, doesn't come without its own set of challenges.

4. Find a Promising Business IT Project and Push for Fast Results

One of the most significant challenges for IT leaders on this journey is usually that business leaders do not yet fully realise what they will soon demand of IT.  

And because of this you don't yet have their support and you will quite probably have no budget to play with.

To not lose much time and momentum by using conventional means for obtaining buy-in, you have to brush up on your leadership skills and be prepared to take some professional risk based on what you believe has to happen, whether you have support or not (this is why step 1 of this action list is so important)

The trick is to reduce the risk by selecting a project that requires business and IT to team up, that can be completed in a short period of time and that, most importantly, will deliver significant business value if it works out.  

Your aim with this is to get the reaction of "Wow, is this really possible?!" and thereby create momentum for more ambitious projects going forward.

To produce this "early win" you will need a "digital coalition" (i.e. others that are willing to experiment with you), new processes to deliver results faster (e.g. Design Thinking is all in vogue currently - check out this video introduction to learn more) and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone. 

5. Learn, Communicate and Iterate

After the first successes in step 4, it is time to conduct an "Agile Retrospective" session to learn from what worked well, what did not work well and what actions need to be taken to improve the process going forward.

This ability to continuously improve is critical for tackling other, more ambitious projects, with each successive iteration adding digital capability, business value from technology and ultimately momentum for the digital transformation initiative.

As the owner of this company-wide effort, you will not only be questioned when things don't turn out as expected but you will also get the recognition when results are delivered.

Assuming that you actually deliver the goods, business leaders will start seeing you in a different light (as you are now affecting the whole organisation instead of just providing "back-office" services) and you will have an increasingly solid claim on the future CIO position.

Conclusion - There Is a Massive Opportunity for the Alert IT Leader

As business leaders in mid-sized businesses wake up to the massive threat and potential of digital they will look for somebody that can help navigate the increasingly turbulent future.

This is a phenomenal opportunity for all present-day IT leaders who are prepared to face the challenge head-on and choose to grow.

To seize this opportunity, however, requires a healthy dose of commitment, some uncomfortable decisions and risks and a significantly increased sense of urgency.

Only few IT leaders so far have realised just how massive this opportunity is and many will not be ready when their business needs a business-savvy CIO.

The good news is that there is still some time and the 5 step action plan lays out the key steps that have to be taken.

The bad news is there is very little time to do just that.

Are you in? 

About the author

DX Sensei, Mastermind Facilitator, Abundance Thinker or CEO, call me what you like, but know this: I am extremely passionate about helping IT leaders from mid-sized businesses discover their true potential and realise just how important they are to helping their employer survive and thrive in our increasingly digital world.

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