CIO Decisions

Putting a social layer into every business app


News Stay informed about the latest enterprise technology news and product updates.

Tips on becoming a transformational leader from CIO of the UN

How do you become a transformational leader? According to the new CIO of the UN, it has to do with right-brain thinking and embracing paradox.

How does a CIO become a transformational leader? For Atefeh "Atti" Riazi, it's a matter of thinking with the right...

side of the brain -- and having a touch of paranoia. "To me, the biggest problem in transformation is success. … You become risk averse," said Riazi, named assistant secretary general and chief information technology officer for the United Nations in May.

Atefeh "Atti" Riazi, CITO, United Nations Atefeh "Atti" Riazi,
United Nations

Transformational leaders have a vision for future success, but paradoxically that vision is formed by being super-attuned to warning signs in the present. They understand that today's success will be tomorrow's failure if their organizations are not continuously innovating. They embrace disruption. "If you are not a risk-taker, and cannot take some calculated risk, you can't do your job," Riazi said.

That may be easier for Riazi than for many.  A born risk-taker, she began her career as a young engineer with the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York. As its CIO, she helped launch the technology that replaced subway tokens with magnetic MetroCards, a rocky implementation that drew attacks from all quarters before ultimately transforming how New Yorkers use mass transit. In 2009 she joined the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) as CIO and went on to serve as Acting General Manager with responsibility for all operations, overseeing a $3 billion budget and 12,000 employees. Prior to her posts at NYHCA she was global CIO and senior partner at international marketing communications firm Ogilvy & Mather.

A keynote speaker at this week's World BPO/ITO Forum in New York City, July 17-18, Riazi spoke to SearchCIO about what's required to deliver real transformation.

Why were you chosen to headline a conference on global business process and IT outsourcing?

Atti Riazi: I am not sure why myself. I would say that when the organizer of the conference and I spoke, I shared with her my belief that there are lots of brilliant CIOs out there that have tremendous potential to rise to the challenge and become CEOs and become COOs. But there are issues that prevent us from making that leap. It would be nice to have a forum where we can talk about what are those issues and how do you become a CEO, not only for national organizations, but also for international organizations; not only in the private sector, but also in the public sector. 

It's popular now to say the consumerization of IT throughout the business organization makes the CIO role less relevant. But you seem to be making the opposite argument: The CIO would actually be a good person to run a company.

Riazi: Absolutely. The CIOs look at the organization horizontally. They understand the implications of change. They are accustomed to transformation. They understand work flows. They understand customer needs on many levels, and they have a very close relationship with stakeholders. But IT professionals also have multiple black eyes. We have led some transformations without success. We have great sophistication with technology but lesser sophistication for softer issues around transformation.

So you do need a holistic CIO. Most CIOs live in their left brain and the rest of the body is there to take care of the left brain. They need to get out of their left brain and they need to move to the right brain.  We are still stuck thinking technology is about tools -- about hardware and software -- when technology is actually about transformation. It's about the experience of all of that hardware, on economic issues, organizational issues, social issues, political issues. It's necessary to move away from the what and how and to understand their job is about why; why do we deploy technology versus what is it we're deploying and how are we deploying it?

How would one become that kind of transformational leader?

Riazi: To me, the biggest problem in transformation is success. When you're successful, you sit around, you have lots of cash, and you think you're working well because you're making money or you're delivering on your value -- whatever that value is -- and people really don't want innovation. It's very disruptive. Therefore, what happens is  you don't invest in R&D [research and development]; you just put the cash aside. And then you become risk-averse. You start to think about a micro-vision versus a macro-vision. We like predictability and comfort, and we and our organizations begin to preserve the state of now and the state of here, because it is working. And that to me is problematic, because the state of now is fuzzy, dynamic.

Three years from now, now is very different, as you have these four pillars that change tremendously. Your technology is changing, your consumers are changing, the competitors change, your supply channels and logistics are changing -- extremely fast. So you sit there and think about the here and now -- 'I'm successful and I'm delivering value' -- and you completely lose focus of the future.

The way I look at it is, the future is creating our vision. It's hard to read the future. How do you know the unknowns? But I do believe that leaders who have a vision, who are in touch and have their finger on the pulse of the four pillars have a good sense of what the future is about. It would take a tough stomach -- some risk-taking -- to say, 'Look we are successful, but here and now is not going to work in three years.' I don't know of many organizations that can move in a short time. And you can see a lot of examples unable to think that way and that are losing competitive edge.

Four pillars of change

If change is the new constant, how as a CIO or CEO do you plan for a future that is constantly changing? How do you know which future to plan for?

Riazi: Let's say you're camping and you are leading a group of 10 people. Someone from behind the line after three hours comes and says, 'Look, I think we're lost. Things just don't look the way they should look,' and you ignore them. To me, that is the warning sign. Most leaders who are in tune with the pulse around them will get that as a warning sign. But many leaders don't get that hint and they continue to go forward on the same track until it's night and it's dark and they are completely lost and it's too late to find the way back.

More advice from speakers at the World BPO/ITO Forum

Former GM, BP CIO urges CIOs to focus on business outcomes

BPO/ITO can help businesses and CIOs manage transformation

So, how in tune are we with the noises around us? How in tune are we with the changes that are happening on the products, from a technology perspective? The power shifts. You have the power of your product. You have the power of your consumer and the consumer behavior changes.

Then it is also about the supply chain. If you look at the airline industry, for example. The travel agents didn't see it coming. The technology was changing around them -- with the introduction of the Internet. The consumers are adapting quickly to the new technology and here they are in the middle and they don't realize that they are about to become irrelevant. That is the supply chain changing.

Then you also have to look at your competitors -- how are they changing, what are they doing?  If you look at the retail sector, that sector is changing tremendously and there are retailers who may not survive the next five years. Look at what happened to Kodak, the fact that they could not see the four indicators around them and how fast they were changing.

So it is not that difficult. The problem is the curse of success, because you're looking at the here and now and it is working and it is difficult to say, 'Let's break what's working.' Nobody likes innovation. People like things the way they are. And innovative people are the strangest people with their harebrained ideas that will bring instability to the organization.  A CIO would have to see these same changes, and the CIO has to see it a lot earlier. It's your job to see the technology and the power of technology and be able to help the organization, except the CIOs are so focused internally. They keep streamlining -- the supply chain is streamlined, the administrative function is streamlined -- but they are less focused on external factors. Some great CIOs are, but generally we are stuck on that internal focus.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

What's interesting is that we've seen a lot of consultants and CIOs pay lip service to "creative destruction" -- Clay Christensen's view of how successful companies are toppled by an unseen competitor -- but your schema of the four pillars puts a practical touch on these ideas. It's so concrete -- to be open to seeing what is different.

It’s a technique -- and maybe it is now my left brain talking, being an engineer -- it is a technique that you can use. The way you learn some of the changes is to step out of your comfort zone. When I do team building with my staff, before the team building sometimes, I have them read a golf magazine if they are not golfers, or I have them read Oprah. I ask them to read those  because it is through reading something different and being exposed to something different that you get to have a sense of the pulse. IT magazines are good, and you should read them, but if you're in a consumer business, 80% of your reading and understanding has to be the magazines your consumers are reading.

Look at the way we teach. Our education system in many ways has failed us. When we raise IT professionals and when we teach and develop engineers  -- and I went through it myself -- we do not teach them philosophy; we do not teach them social science; we do not teach them psychology; we do not teach them marketing; we do not teach them how to read or how to think. And then they graduate and a big part of the problem is that we look at these new kids coming out of college, these entrants, and they are not holistic and they cannot do the job that is necessary. The job is no longer about managing the utility. The job is about innovating and about intellectually thinking, and we are struggling with finding the right skill sets.

Playing in the quadrants of power and politics

Getting the right brain engaged is easier said than done. You are a natural born risk taker, but I wonder if you can teach someone to be risk-averse.

Riazi: The one thing I tell people is that they do not have the right to fail. We do not have the right to fail, especially when you manage a huge capital budget -- and we do. Most CIOs spend a lot of money. You are given this immense responsibility to transform the operation. If you are not a risk-taker and cannot take some calculated risk, you can't do your job. Now, if you take uncalculated risk, then it could be devastating, but most of us are seasoned enough. 

The risk of speaking up -- that is the risk, because most of us have a good sense of the four pillars. CIOs are actually pretty in tune with that, but we don't speak up. And we don't play well in the quadrants of power and politics.

First of all, in a quadrant of power, we only play in the expert quadrant, which means we only speak out when it is a technical question. We don't speak up when it is a business issue, when we believe that we can contribute. Of the quadrants of power, we only play in the expert and informational, and only a little in the informational quadrant.

The second issue is politics. We believe organizations are rational and we believe people make decisions based on rational thinking and data and logic, but that is not the case. People don't make decisions that way. In organizations, decisions are also made based on politics, on people's needs. We don't really understand this and because we don't really understand we don't work in the organizational realm to get buy-in for the transformation. That's the learning we need to have. We are one of the few -- maybe the only C-suite executive -- that thinks politics is bad and power is bad. That's a problem, because when you become a CIO you've been given power. And you've been given the power to influence, to influence change and to bring change. So if we don't use it, we are not doing our job.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

Article 3 of 8

Dig Deeper on Leadership and strategic planning

Join the conversation

1 comment

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.

Do you think C-level execs need a certain level of paranoia to be transformative leaders? How do your company's execs fare?

Get More CIO Decisions

Access to all of our back issues View All