5 traits of the transformational CIO

'Transformation' gets overused as a term. But truly transformational CIOs share these qualities
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Enterprise technology leaders can no longer rely on a track record of operational performance to remain relevant in the future. Today’s businesses need transformational, change-driving CIOs who can help them innovate like startups while still running the controls and efficiencies that their legacies require. But if tech savvy and creativity were the only qualities needed to make CIOs transformational, this article would be over after this sentence. Affecting company-wide transformation requires more.

Further, there seems to be a gap between what is needed from IT to drive transformation and what is actually happening. For example, Deloitte’s 2016/2017 CIO survey noted that while 57 percent of CIOs said that customers were their company’s top priority, only 45 percent felt that their IT strategy actually improved customer experience.

[Want advice from IT leaders who've succeeded with transformation? See our related article, 10 digital transformation must-reads. ]

And according to Gartner, only 39 percent of CIOs are overseeing digital transformation. To drive lasting and material change in the enterprise, CIOs have to step outside of their technology confines to be a more active business partner with the entire organization. In my experience, truly transformational CIOs possess some combination of the following traits:

1. Customer-centric

With technology and innovation increasingly vital to establishing, retaining, and enhancing customer relationships, it’s no wonder top transformational CIOs focus on helping grow the top line through customer experience improvements. Contributing to this growth also requires tighter relationships with the CMO and investments in customer analytics.

[TEP_CALLOUT_TEXT_RIGHT:"Top CIOs are insulted when you talk about 'the business' as being something apart from their organization."]

2. Adept in both technology and business

I’ve learned that top CIOs are insulted when you talk about “the business” as something apart from their organization. In fact, I’m seeing more CIOs who are involved in another discipline altogether. For instance, they might be tasked with overall digital business transformation, improving the supply chain, or creating a more analytics-driven enterprise.

3. Experimental

The transformational CIO maintains an agenda and resources dedicated to innovation. Of course, these CIOs also need to keep the lights on – in fact, their job is to make the lights shine more brightly, and for less. But the best CIOs encourage their teams to experiment and learn. They back these requests with funding and make time available rather than forcing teams to cordon off innovation in some exclusive lab or mysterious bunker.

4. Maniacal about economics and outcomes

The best CIOs understand the economics of IT, and – more importantly – how their initiatives affect the general ledgers of each business unit they support. For these CIOs, intangible measures like increased flexibility and responsiveness often find their way into the appendices of their presentations.

5. Focused on culture and skills

This may sound contradictory to my previous point that it's all about dollars and cents, but the top CIOs I’ve interacted with realize that the most sustainable business outcomes happen through investing in the right cultures. IT culture, of course, must align with overall corporate culture, but what works most effectively is when the IT culture blends an emphasis on collaboration, proactivity, and accountability.

Finally, transformational CIOs realize that they’ll never be out of the war for talent. They must continuously invest in learning opportunities for their teams and just like innovation, maintain room in the budget for it.

Daniel Adamany is the founder and CEO of consulting company AHEAD. In this role, he is responsible for company vision, strategy, and execution, engaging directly with clients and partners to ensure that AHEAD continues to meet and exceed expectations.