IT leadership: 5 ways for CIOs to embrace a coaching role

BNY Mellon's Hans Brown offers insight on managing change, fostering innovation, and empowering teams to drive business growth through effective coaching
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At BNY Mellon, we have a deep commitment to our clients. The pandemic brought massive changes to the way we work. We also saw change in our clients’ needs for data and insights as well as an associated desire for an increased spectrum of new products and services.

Our organization responded quickly to those needs during a time of immense external challenges. We are focused on delivering the right digital and technological infrastructure and solutions. This spotlight on the speed and strategy of our digital transformation required me to double down on my role as a coach and a multiplier to create an environment that facilitates our engineering-first (not engineering-only) culture to empower innovation across our organization.

Change is difficult. There is comfort in inertia. If you think about your morning routine, it’s probably consistent and allows you to get it done on autopilot. Changing your routine forces you to think, which is hard.

Scaling that individual change within a large organization only increases the difficulty and complexity. To make rapid, impactful, and lasting change, people, processes, and technology must work together to generate compelling outcomes or solutions. This creates a “dopamine” effect, rewarding the effort that is required to deliver and sustain the change.

[ Want more real-world advice on managing change? Read also: 7 change management tips: Houston CIO of the Year winners share. ] 

Focusing only on one of those facets would be myopic, as innovation doesn’t happen in a silo; it grows and propagates through collaboration and experimentation within an ecosystem of clients, technology companies, and financial system stakeholders.

5 ways for CIOs to coach

CIOs in a coaching role are necessary to see their organizations through the complexity of digital transformation. Here are five ways I embrace this role. 

1. Build understanding and alignment

To create an effective strategy, a coach must understand the goals and potential outcomes, which teams need to execute the strategy, and most importantly, the shared culture that defines their reason for existence. In the last year, our team has worked hard to create an infrastructure and ecosystem that powers digital transformation. Past lessons have taught me, first and foremost, that everything we do must align with our overall business strategy and by extension, the vision of the company, which is focused on improving the lives of our clients through inclusion, innovation, and investing.

If the platforms we create don’t align with the immediate and future needs of the company in a way that is quantitative, tracked, and most importantly, “felt” within the organization, it will never receive the support needed to be sustainable and grow.

To ensure this happens, I meet regularly with all stakeholders throughout the organization and across all regions to understand their challenges and needs and to ensure that my initiatives are connected to, and support, theirs.

2. Employ rapid experimentation and disciplined execution

A coach must always change and build strategy in an agile way, and not just in agile ceremonies but in an intrinsic philosophy and ideology. As we think about technology, we want to model our implementation as any startup would, but with the added benefit of the reliability and resilience that a 236-year-old organization brings. We need to experiment quickly and learn fast.

Using product design techniques and visual requirements management tools, our team conducts discovery workshops to understand and frame problem statements. Once these are defined, the team builds potential solutions, including high-fidelity wireframes and MVPs, and tests and validates the results of their implementation. 

The idea is to constantly learn and remodel for new use cases throughout the organization.

Whether through many iterations or just one, the idea is to constantly learn and remodel for new use cases throughout the organization. Once the hypothesis or approach is validated, the team pivots to a disciplined execution with urgency and speed.

3. Create an infrastructure that empowers

Coaches empower others by leveraging the benefits that are available to them for others. Within our organization, technology leadership has built a world-class infrastructure that is cloud-native, scalable, resilient, and evergreen. This infrastructure empowers the entire organization, allowing all the divisions in our company to easily create new solutions that address the questions that our clients and the market are asking.

For example, we recently developed a cloud-based Innovation Sandbox.

For example, we recently developed a cloud-based Innovation Sandbox – an environment designed to enable collaboration within emerging technology companies or startups, which is equipped with the relevant infrastructure and utilities for facilitating rapid experimentation of new ideas and concepts.

4. Educate to unleash innovation

Coaches also develop their people. BNY Mellon has 50,000 talented employees with great ideas and a drive to get them done. Last summer we launched a crowdsourcing idea initiative. This program creates opportunities for employees to creatively drive new and improved ways of working while harnessing the collective intelligence of the diverse, global organization.

Over a two-week period, employees from our largest business unit were asked to ideate upon the challenge of transforming processes within the organization. Employees voted on their favorite ideas to become finalist contenders. The teams behind those ideas were then invited to a “Shark Tank”-style session, with BNY Mellon’s own executives as judges.

This program had a 37.3 percent participation rate and generated over 50 innovative ideas, some of which earned more than 3,000 employee votes. We allowed everyone in the organization to educate each other and gain valuable insight in the process. We also built a culture of continual learning, leveraging multiple mediums and platforms that enabled individuals to learn and demonstrate mastery of roles and skills. As the great Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose, I either win or I learn.” That is the culture we are enabling.

5. Encourage objective voices

While good coaches must have fortitude in their own game plans, they must also always be willing to listen to others and bring diverse voices into the conversation to cover their blind spots. Part of creating successful organizations is to have an ecosystem of diverse, trusted partners with outside insight that inform one’s own.

Our team works hard to make sure emerging technology companies that are building cutting-edge solutions can easily access our organization at the same level as established players. For example, we launched the Fintech Express Program, a faster, more streamlined onboarding process of emerging technology companies, so that companies can build a low-risk proof of concept (POC) in half the time that would have been required a year ago. We also created a global Accelerator that provides open calls for strategic initiatives and allows startups from any location across the globe to apply to build POC solutions for those initiatives directly from the BNY Mellon website. At the same time, we have been very intentional in building diverse teams and creating a culture where diversity is both encouraged and sought after.

The role of the CIO is changing, and I personally welcome the change. CIOs are pivoting away from pure technology to a role that looks to be at the confluence of client, technology, and business. CIOs do not create all innovation – they enable an organization to unleash it.

(Editor's note: This article was developed in partnership with The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), a national organization dedicated exclusively to cultivating executive talent among Black technology professionals. To learn more about ITSMF, visit

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Hans Brown
Hans Brown is the Head of Enterprise Innovation and Chief Information Officer for Corporate Technology at BNY Mellon.