Business Mentor: CIOs Can Become Change Masters

Business skills, strong mentoring relationships can help IT become a "change master."

With the rapid changes and demands of today's business environment, the performance bar for IT executives is constantly being raised. Yet many business executives still don't believe their information technology colleagues have the right business skills to act as "change masters."

To be a change master, you must be willing to take initiative and immerse yourself in learning what drives your company's business. Your goal is to effectively define and communicate across the organization how IT can be leveraged to create and capture value.

During my 42 years of practical business experience, as both a consultant and an executive technology manager, I've seen too many missed opportunities where IT could have made major contributions, yet failed to do so. The reasons varied: lack of leadership, too little business involvement, ineffective communication. But the results were always the same: Executive management continued to see IT as a narrowly focused, expensive technical enabler rather than a vital driving force in reaching business goals.

If this sounds like the IT situation in your company, don't despair. There's a lot you can do to refocus on creating business value and establishing your role as a change master. I sit on the board of directors for a midtier financial institution, and I've witnessed how one highly effective IT director meets business demands. He communicates the value of technology in quantifiable, easily understood business terms, and is often assigned to special business projects.

This executive has a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA. He was recruited by the bank for an IT management position and has been there for 10 years. In his previous role, his major responsibility was sales and marketing, as a member of a team responsible for supporting a major retailer.

In his current role, his primary mentor has been the chairman of the board, but he views other senior managers as his mentors, as well. He has good relationships with his business partners and often looks to them and the bank's customers for firsthand information on the kind of solutions that will keep the bank competitively agile.

His approach to leadership includes a team mentality with an intense focus on people. He and his staff of 38 are excellent communicators who rely on plenty of face-to-face meetings, both formal and informal, to help them see issues through the lens of this banking business.

On one recent assignment, this IT director was asked to develop a new fee-based product and create a separate profit center around it. He was responsible for the total product design, pricing, business goals and development of the technology needed to deliver the product. Over a six-month period, the product went from concept to implementation. It now represents significant growth in the bank's core deposit base. Through it all, this IT executive worked closely with other members of the management team, soliciting their feedback and actively involving them throughout the project. The results -- on time, within budget and commercially successful -- are already exceeding expectations and generating significant new fee revenue.

This is a great example of how increased business focus, frequent face-to-face interactions and strong mentoring relationships with business partners can earn IT strong recognition for creating value. This IT manager's performance, and his demonstrated ability to become part of the business, has earned him credibility, new assignments and a growing acknowledgment throughout the bank that the IT department's resources can be put to the test as change masters.

Jerry McElhatton, CEO of Virtual Resources in Dallas, is the former president of Global Technology and Operations at MasterCard International.

This was first published in March 2005

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