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Pointers on becoming a transformational CIO, pitfalls to avoid

A panel of CIO experts explore the role of the transformational CIO. Understanding organizational change and being plugged in are big factors.

What does it mean to be a transformational CIO?

The question was raised by industry analyst Michael Krigsman at a CIO event last month at Boston College. There to answer was a panel steeped in the world of CIOs: two former CIOs turned consultants, a research scientist whose field is business transformation and a high-profile CIO with a history of taking on tough IT assignments.

One widely shared opinion: The role is not defined by technology or circumscribed by digital transformation -- at least not as that term is typically defined.

"Most of the time, we're talking about digital transformation in a vacuum. It's digital for digital's sake, but it isn't tied to a specific outcome that brings business benefit," said consultant Tim Crawford, CIO strategic adviser at AVOA in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., and host of the "CIO In the Know" podcast. Business benefit is the North Star of the digital transformation, he said -- "not tech for tech's sake."

Here are some of the panel's key takeaways on what goes into being a transformational CIO.

Navigating organizational change

Stephanie Woerner, research scientist, MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems ResearchStephanie Woerner

Stephanie Woerner, a research scientist at the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research, agreed the technology overhaul usually required for digital transformation doesn't happen in a vacuum.

"Digital transformation is almost a synonym for organizational change," she said.

The organizational change happens in three realms: at the systems level, in workplace politics and in corporate culture. 

Companies are implementing new technology systems today to help them compete more effectively in a digital economy. The technology alters products and services and how they are delivered -- and, consequently, all the decision rights formerly associated with the old business model.

"It's a lot of political change" that IT and business leaders often fail to pay mind to, she said. The new systems and processes drive cultural change, because they require people to work differently and interact with each other differently.

"The fact that you're changing who you're selling to or what you're selling is going to impact all three of those categories," Woerner said. 

Transformational CIO as persuader, imaginator-in-chief

Isaac Sacolick, president, StarCIOIsaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick, whose career as a CIO included stints at Businessweek and McGraw-Hill, said the essence of being a transformational CIO is getting people to do things differently -- and "that is hard to do."

"In all my roles as CIO, I was at companies under duress -- they were really being disrupted," said Sacolick, now the president of New York-based consultancy StarCIO and author of a book on digital transformation. "As leaders, you need to persuade people to think differently."

Early adopters are easy to manage in situations where change is urgently needed, he said, as they are, by definition, eager to try new things. As for the laggards, he said companies have ways to deal with this cohort, including firing people.

"Then, there is a middle group, some 70% of the organization, that needs to be convinced," he said -- and not just about what technologies to invest in and how much to invest. "You need people to think about data, about customer experience, about where the organization wants to win."

Crawford said the transformational CIO is not aiming for the status quo.

"We get into this mode of looking for best practices. But that is somebody else's best practice, not necessarily yours," he said. "The way your organization needs to evolve requires imagination."

Focus on customer experience

Among transformational CIOs, change management skills and imagination are not confined to the IT department.

MIT Sloan's Woerner said the CIOs her research group is talking to these days "have a vision of what their company can do." They are CIOs at large companies with big IT infrastructures and big IT projects, she said, but they are not just "services" CIOs.

To be sure, they measure people to ensure IT service is where it needs be. "But that is not where their big value is. They are vital to the business," Woerner said.

As such, they are knowledgeable about what customers want and what problems they are trying to solve -- leaning, if necessary, on partners in the business to educate them on these issues.

Sacolick said he is continually surprised at how many CIOs "are not thinking about the customer and customer experience.

"If you're not calling up the CMO [chief marketing officer] and asking questions, you're in trouble," he said, underscoring that CIOs can't just be focused on operational efficiency, because they "will run out of runway" on that metric and jeopardize advancing their careers.

Litmus test for CIO as change maker

Panel member Ben Haines, CIO at Verizon Media, whose past experience includes jobs at Yahoo, Box and Pabst Brewing Co., has made a practice of taking on tough IT assignments.

"I guess I'm a sucker for punishment, but there is reward in taking an organization and getting it out of bind," he said. Calling himself "a builder and not an operator," he said he hands over the IT operations function to someone else once the rebuilding is done.

Tim Crawford, CIO strategic adviser, AVOATim Crawford

Crawford said a "quick and dirty way" for CIOs to assess their potential as change-makers is to ask themselves if they know the top three topics discussed by their boards of directors.

"If the answer is 'no,' you need to stop and step out of your shoes and take a look at where you are and how you are aligning yourself with the rest of the company," he said.

Crawford said the same litmus test can be applied to the rest of the C-suite: Can CIOs name the top three issues of their CEOs, CFOs, CMOs and so on?

"If you are not familiar with the kinds of conversations they are having, that is usually a good indicator you are not as plugged in as you need to be," he said.

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