Influence the inner circle with this leadership advice from Discover CIO

Influence the inner circle with this leadership advice from Discover CIO

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CIO Engaging, retaining and co-creating IT

Do you want to become part of your organization's leadership inner circle? Join the conversation about its business goals. That advice comes from Glenn Schneider, CIO at Discover Financial Services. It's a goal he himself has achieved — in addition to CIO he is also executive vice president and a member of Discover's Executive Committee. In an interview with The Enterprisers Project, he explains how IT leaders can become part of their company's core leadership.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Most IT leaders want a seat at the table.Yet some achieve it, and others are only seen as necessary cost centers. How can CIOs become valuable business partners?

Schneider: It starts with being a part of the business and their conversation on business goals — short and long-term. At Discover, my conversations are all about how technology can drive results for our internal business partners — what technology can do for business growth, how we can deliver projects faster, how we can help the business do things differently. In essence, it's all about driving business value and helping Discover become the leading direct bank and payments partner.

We talk about the problems the business is facing and how we can help. The key is that we don't just talk about how technology works and the complications with technology. This can drive a divide between you and the business. Talk about the business problem, what they need to solve, and how we can help solve it.

TEP: Are there specific areas IT leaders should make sure to address?

Schneider: Helping our partners to manage expenses is an area that can help IT leaders have a seat at the table. IT may need to lead the conversations to make sure finite technology resources are being used to maximize business benefit. These conversations can be tough, but if done right, will improve delivery at reduced cost. Hence, you improve the business revenue/expense margin.

Once you're engaged and having these conversations with the business, you need to create success stories. These wins should generate tangible business value which will subsequently foster stronger relationships. It shows that you are listening and working in support of their goals by focusing on what matters to the business. In the end, you will be seen as a value-add partner, an enabler — someone who gets a tremendous amount of respect from the business.

TEP: In order to wield proper influence, does a CIO need to report directly to the CEO? Does he or she need to be included in C-suite meetings?

Schneider: The CIO should report to the highest level person who is making decisions about the day-to-day operations of the organization and is responsible for achieving the business goals. Being in sync is very important, and the CIO absolutely needs to be in constant contact with the C-suite. It's definitely a two-way street. You can't be effective if you're out of touch. You need to know what's going on in the business and the issues they are dealing with.

TEP: How important is it for CIOs to understand the workings of the business itself, apart from its technological needs?

Schneider: It is very important for a CIO to understand what is going on in the business, though it is a two-pronged approach — while we are focused on driving immediate results for the business, we also need to be very aware of changes in technology and how these changes can augment the business three to five years out. At Discover we believe the strategic foundation for helping the business get where it wants to be in three years is often delivered through technology. That's the question for CIOs today: Can you wear both hats (business and technology)?

Close relationships with the business executives are critical. The CIO needs to understand their goals and objectives and should align IT's goals to these needs. At Discover, technology leaders attend staff meetings, off-sites, strategic discussions and conferences alongside our business partners so that our technology team is ingrained with the business to understand them better.

TEP: You have a major project currently underway to move to a new core banking system. How did you work with business executives to decide it was the right time for this big transition?

Schneider: The value, impact and benefit of any project ultimately must be understood and sponsored by the business, with input from IT. Together we worked on identifying the constraints of the current business model — what are their inhibitors, what are their objectives? Through collaboration with my business executive counterpart, it became clear that the system was outdated and needed to be replaced. Together, we then began the journey of finding and implementing a new platform to best meet their needs and help them get where they were trying to go in the future.

It was a co-sponsored activity versus just technology. Technology can't be successful if you have to take the journey alone. We couldn't be successful without the support of the business — the project never would have gotten off the ground. The relationship between the CIO and business executive is all about partnership and collaboration. There is a role and responsibility for each, but there's shared ownership and that's the great thing. Share the risk with your business partner — we sink or swim together.

TEP: What are the biggest and most common mistakes CIOs make when trying to gain a position of influence in the C-Suite?

Schneider: As I mentioned before, communication and open collaboration between partners is critical. Not fully understanding a business problem, their pain or issues can really be an inhibitor to wielding influence from the IT department. Avoid making assumptions, dig in and really understand the issues they are trying to solve.

I'd also recommend that CIOs avoid speaking from only a technical perspective when talking with business partners. When you are coming from a position of authority, you need to be able to speak the business language so they can clearly see and understand IT benefits.

TEP: What advice would you offer CIOs about gaining a position of influence in top leadership? Any things they should make sure not to do?

Schneider: If you say you're going to do something, deliver on it, and then make sure you can articulate and communicate the results. An example from my experience is the deployment of agile development at Discover. At first, the business was resistant to this change. Technology took a leadership role. We understood their concerns; we restructured our teams and pushed forward. We were able to demonstrate results; i.e., shorter development lifecycles and tangible business results sooner. Now, we have a great process in place and our partners are fully on board.

My advice is to understand the goals of each business and how IT can help them deliver new products/services/features faster. Align your goals with the business. Work with them to identify solutions to achieve these goals, lead those solutions and drive them into the organization. Measure the benefit on the back end. If the business aligns to that benefit, you're in a great place because they see that you are delivering ideas and value. It doesn't necessarily mean that you are always going and purchasing new software or technology; it might be leveraging existing capability, process-driven improvements or helping to influence change.

See problems as opportunities to change the culture so as to help the business get things done faster. Reinvent yourself continuously — what worked yesterday doesn't necessarily work today or tomorrow. Don't just settle for how you've always done it. You need to keep pace with the rapidly changing environment.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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