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How to become a CIO thought leader

Experts discuss how CIOs and IT leaders can utilize successful thought leadership to distinguish and promote either their companies or themselves.

So, you want to be a thought leadership star? Sung to the tune of the Byrds' classic: Then, listen now to what I say.

Thought leadership is a great way to establish and build a personal brand. It's a dual-purpose tool you can use to promote yourself and your company. It helps you connect with other like-minded people, as well as with people who will challenge and push back against your ideas. And it's a proven way to bring to the surface pragmatic solutions to difficult, intractable and even wicked problems.

Successful thought leadership also tends to correlate with personal and career development. Some CIOs have used their profiles as thought leaders to transition into new and rewarding career paths.

"I think my thought leadership was 100% a factor in my job change," said Paul Lewis, global vice president and CTO at Hitachi Vantara, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Lewis worked for 17 years as a CIO and CTO at a company that provides IT consulting and integration services to the financial services industry. He said he spent several years experimenting with thought leadership by cultivating his persona and messaging. During that same period, Lewis' perspective changed -- it got bigger.

He discovered there's truth to the old adage about "finding one's voice."

"I evolved from a manager[-type] to a leadership[-type] perspective in terms of my take on the potential impact of technological innovation and disruption," Lewis explained.

"I'd take a concept -- say, IoT -- and I'd ask, 'How do I think about IoT in my organization, knowing that I'm going to have to deal with these financial constraints, these people and process constraints?'" he continued. "A large organization has hundreds or thousands of [existing] applications. Which of these are actually the best candidates for IoT?"

Once he learned to approach technology issues from this perspective, Lewis began to look skeptically at some of the tools he used to do his job. For example, organizations often employ maturity models as starting points to orient their planning efforts or develop strategies. But Lewis came to understand the maturity model as a kind of necessary fiction.

An application is almost never isolated to a single system, almost never managed or serviced by a single person, and it is almost never confined to a single process. Instead, it's compounded of multiple, disparate people, processes and technologies.

"I saw that I might be dealing with dozens and dozens of different maturities based on the potential application," he explained. "This was essential for my growth as a leader." 

CIO thought leadership

Thought leadership has the potential to challenge, perplex and often bring out the best in people. However, it's also fraught with hidden or, at least, not-so-obvious pitfalls. Would-be CIO thought leaders must skillfully navigate what Jill Dyché, independent strategy consultant and thought leader, called "the subterranean alleyways" of intraorganizational "messiness."

Jill Dyche, independent strategy consultant and thought leaderJill Dyche

Dyché should know. She helped bootstrap SAS Institute Inc.'s thought leadership practice from scratch. During her presentation at the Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit in the summer of 2019, Dyché discussed this experience. She described how she first established her bona fides as a thought leader with Baseline Consulting, a business intelligence and analytics firm she co-founded. At Baseline, she gave keynotes at industry conferences, contributed articles to industry publications, taught how-to classes at educational events and established a social media brand. Her thought leadership -- along with that of her co-founder -- was a factor in SAS' 2012 acquisition of Baseline, Dyché said.

At Baseline, Dyché's thought leadership was the company line. In contrast, at a Fortune 500 company such as SAS, she was just one vice president among dozens. She could no longer presume to speak for, or as, the company.

She couldn't simply toe the company line, either. The challenge of successful thought leadership is twofold, according to Dyché. On the one hand, would-be thought leaders must assert the uniqueness of their own voices and craft their own messages, while taking care not to contradict the messaging of the organizations that employ them.

On the other hand, they must guard their independence against the agendas of the internal forces, such as public relations (PR) and marketing, that will try to coopt and control them.

"PR is one potential source of opposition. PR sees thought leadership as synonymous with content. And they want to own content. If you're having success with your thought leadership, they might think you should be a content factory under them," Dyché said.

One solution is to seek allies, which Dyché and her team found in the unlikeliest of places.

"What we did that was smart was we attached ourselves to sales, even though we were in marketing," she said. "As soon as sales discovered how useful we could be, we were protected."

She also encountered problems -- or, more precisely, antagonists -- she couldn't possibly have anticipated. This last is a feature, not a bug, of thought leadership: The very technologies that permit thought leaders to share, promote and amplify their voices are available and accessible by everyone.

"It's a given in any organization: There's going to be politics. There will be naysayers, people who resent you because you're influential, a thought leader," she pointed out. "There will be people who, if they're not on your team, they're going to bash your team. There will also be those rogue or random people who will just go ahead and hang out their own thought leadership shingles and call themselves thought leaders."

CIO thought leadership dos and don'ts

To be a thought leader is to be perceived as a thought leader; to be perceived as a thought leader is to have one's insights retweeted, shared, liked, pinned, forwarded and so on. But the biggest asset of thought leaders is their independence. A person who is seen as a mere mouthpiece for his or her employer is doomed to irrelevance -- or, even worse, to being unliked, unfollowed or unfriended. That's the rub. Now more than ever, companies are obsessed with controlling their messaging. They see thought leadership as a potentially valuable tool -- something that can and should be adjunct to marketing. But this is a mistake, Dyché urged.

Some of it is expanding on your employer's brand, [and] some is expanding on your own personal brand. They're actually mutually beneficial. To the degree that you're seen to be your own person, you aren't seen as a corporate shell.
Paul LewisGlobal vice president and CTO at Hitachi Vantara

"We would never conflict with a product, but we would never recommend a specific product, either," she said in a follow-up interview. "We focused on use cases and [offerings]."

Hitachi Vantara's Lewis echoed this advice.

"I tend to take the position of an external, semi-objective observer," he said, adding that "it's conceivable I might personally disagree" with something an employer says. "When that happens, I'll say, 'This is certainly a valid perspective on this topic, but I want to flip the script a little bit and look at it from this angle.'"

Lewis has additional advice for would-be CIO thought leaders: Stay on script and don't mix your personal and professional social media personae.

"You can go through my entire social feed, and you won't find anything political or religious. Sometimes, it's almost entirely geared toward a skeptical external audience," he explained. "I'm also very careful [with respect to] how much I share. You won't see a ton of retweets from me, or an hourly barrage of content."

A successful thought leader must have something valuable to say and must be able to say it in an interesting, compelling and thought-provoking way. The upshot is not everybody has what it takes to be a thought leader. And for those who do, there's an unavoidable learning curve. Successful thought leaders, like successful standup comics, public speakers, leadership gurus, etc., hone their acts.

"I actually refer to all of this as stagecraft: It's in the same category as being up on stage with 1,000 people or doing media or analyst interviews; all of this is part of the stagecraft required to build a brand," Lewis said. "Some of it is expanding on your employer's brand, [and] some is expanding on your own personal brand. They're actually mutually beneficial. To the degree that you're seen to be your own person, you aren't seen as a corporate shell."

Both Dyché and Lewis are optimistic CIO thought leaders and their employers can strike balances that are mutually beneficial.

"I think there's a correlation between a CIO or an IT executive's success as a thought leader and the company's recognition of that as a corporate and branding advantage," Dyché said. "Increasingly, companies cannot deny that thought leadership can be a differentiator. And if it is a differentiator, they want to showcase that."

For his part, Lewis said he's enjoyed this in both of his recent job roles.

"I'm lucky in that the cultures of the organizations I've worked in have been very tolerant of my having my own voice. I can honestly say I've never had any pushback. The only time when [my employers] would get involved is if we are pushing a specific marketing message for a launch. But, even then, it's making me aware of what they're doing. I feel as if I have full creative empowerment."

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