3 new leadership skills for the transformative CIO

CIOs must evolve their own leadership skills in three key areas – or fall behind in the digital age. For example, you need to take customer focus and collaboration to new levels
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Constant change is the new normal in technology. For CIOs, this can be a thrill and a headache. The possibilities that are unlocked by digital transformation have propelled the CIO role into prominence. But unless CIOs are actively evolving their leadership competencies to keep pace with these changes, they risk falling behind as leaders at the very time when they need to step up. 

To set the context, there are five big trends that I believe IT organizations must embrace to be successful in the digital future. 

To embrace these changes, CIOs must evolve their leadership repertoire accordingly.
  • A stronger focus on the customer experience. IT organizations in the past focused on aligning with the business, but that’s not sufficient today. IT organizations need to shift their focus to the client and the client experience in order to be seen as revenue-generating CIOs.
  • A broader view of partnerships. An IT organization’s partnership base used to be comprised of technology firms, systems integrators, and consulting firms. As the digital ecosystem continues to form, CIOs are now partnering with a broader set of platform companies that are popping up in their respective industries. This is forcing CIOs to consider a more expansive group of partners.
  • An open architecture. In the past, CIOs dealt with legacy transformations. Today, CIOs must shift their focus to an external architecture that’s more open and API-based.
  • Driving collaboration. The way in which IT organizations work today must be more collaborative. As a leader, you’re responsible for facilitating these teams and driving improved collaboration — not just from a systems build standpoint, but from a holistic business perspective, which includes your product, distribution, operations, legal, and compliance teams, too.
  • Driving operational excellence. In the past, the operations mindset was always about driving efficiency. The world has changed in such a way that it now demands higher operational excellence. We’re more digital, which means the ways in which we interact with clients and employees has become more real-time and always on.

To embrace these changes, CIOs must evolve their leadership repertoire accordingly. There are three new competencies that are essential: 

1. Be passionate about the client experience

Your passion for the client experience must be front-and-center in all your communications with business partners and teams. For many people, client centricity is merely lip service. You need to take it to the next level, you need to live and breathe it and talk about it all the time.

If you’re talking about a new system that’s being implemented, for example, talk about it in the context of what it does for your client experience. When there’s a failure in your systems and you’re trying to fix it, don’t detail how long it took to restore it or how you found the bug – talk about the impact of the failure from a client experience perspective. 

It is table stakes for technology leaders to be focused on building systems capabilities that are business enablers; however, it is essential that those capabilities stem from being passionate about clients – a skill you only develop by spending more time with them. 

[ Read more from Anil Cheriyan: Digital Transformation: Why it pays to be a platform business. ]

2. Foster collaboration

In the past, if IT organizations could own their hardware, they also owned their software and the people who built it. You had control over everything. But as more IT organizations rely on external platform partners, cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Software-as-a-Service, and Platform-as-a-Service providers, and more open API-based architectures there’s a greater need to relinquish some of that control and foster collaboration. 

It’s less about ownership and control and more about collaboration and influence.

CIOs today must work to build the right ecosystem of players. This requires a change in leadership skills because you are now exacting performance from players you don’t directly own. As your span of responsibilities become more complex, CIOs need to develop the ability to continue to have end-to-end ownership but rely on multiple players in the ecosystem to perform. It’s less about ownership and control and more about collaboration and influence.

3. Develop constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo

There’s no longer room to remain satisfied with the status quo. The world is changing all the time. More demands are being placed on digital, and the always-on culture permeates deeper into everything that we do. This means CIOs must develop a constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo. Just because you’ve met your goals and your scorecards are green doesn’t mean you should be satisfied with the work you’ve done. 

CIOs need to constantly challenge themselves and raise their bar. There’s no, “I’m doing fine,” or “I’m working on it, but it’s taking me a while to get there.” Don’t make excuses, don’t rest on your laurels, and don’t accept the status quo. The word “constructive” is key here. There are a lot of people who can be constantly negative about the current state, but that doesn’t engender followership. You’ve got to figure out a way to be constructive about improving the status quo so that you get people to rally around the change. Ultimately, attaining this mindset and competency is tied in with the passion for the client experience – it’s tied into the why, the what, and the purpose of what you’re trying to get done.

CIOs today must mirror the pace of change in business and technology and evolve as leaders. This means understanding key changes in our ecosystem – from a focus on the client and developing a global view of partners, to supporting an open architecture and driving collaboration and operational excellence. If you embrace these trends and use them to evolve your own leadership skills, the future is bound to be better. 

[ How can you build a more open and collaborative organization? Get the free eBook: The Open Organization Workbook, for advice from more than 25 leaders, consultants, and other practitioners.]

Anil Cheriyan
Anil Cheriyan is Cognizant’s Executive Vice President, Strategy and Technology. Overseeing all aspects of Corporate Strategy, Global IT and Global Security, Anil is responsible for Cognizant’s strategy, alliances and business development, and for strengthening the company’s global IT and security capabilities.