CIO role: 5 secrets to success

Today's CIOs do much more than run IT operations. Here's how top IT leaders create vision, inspire their teams, and grow business
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Does it ever feel like some CIOs have a “special sauce" that helps them rise above others? They don’t necessarily have a fancier resume or a better tailor, but they somehow find ways to improve the team around them.

We can’t bottle that secret formula, but here are five practices that the best of the best share:

1. Lean in on culture

Creating a culture that inspires and encourages is every leader’s job. Defining how the IT team shows up within that culture is critical to the CIO’s role. How does IT interpret and live the values of the organization? How does the team celebrate successes and milestones? How do they tell their stories to the full organization?

[ Also read Motivate your IT team using this leadership advice. ]

One CIO we work with talks openly about the culture he is committed to creating. He uses words like well-being, achievement, security, and joy – words not always associated with technology. But it’s authentic and moves the culture in new directions.

2. Measure impact on the business

Typically, IT provides the C-suite with metrics around application launches and system errors. But senior executives want more.

With technology changing rapidly in every possible sphere, senior leaders want to hear about the value your organization is delivering. Show them metrics that pack a punch: how you are growing your strategic partnerships – and why it matters; how you are aligning on business imperatives; what’s new on the horizon and how it can impact the enterprise.

3. Stay ahead of the vision

How will your IT organization evolve to support the organization’s future? Have you transitioned from a back-office function to a revenue-generating function?

Answering these questions now, with an outlook two or three years down the road, will enable your organization to think proactively and plan to build the capabilities and skills required for the transformation you envision.

4. Get comfortable being front and center

IT is not a function to be hidden in the shadows anymore. Today, every company is a tech company – and they need to think and act like one. That puts the CIO in a high-visibility/high-impact role.

Today, every company is a tech company – and they need to think and act like one. That puts the CIO in a high-visibility/high-impact role.

Use a products-and-platforms approach: Prioritize the design and build for the organization’s “customer” or “consumer.” More and more CIOs are talking about business and motivating people inside and outside their organizations.

Michael Smith, CIO of Estee Lauder Companies, talks about the power of joy and why this is important to developing and growing a thriving organization. In addition to increased speed and scale, Smith talks about how joy drives leader behaviors that inspire trust and security. He communicates his message internally via town halls, team meetings, leadership training, etc., and externally via podcasts, interviews, and blog posts. His position is unique, inspiring, and broadly shared.

5. Co-create your vision with your executive team

Engage business leaders in your vision that information technology is at the heart of the organization. How technology and data are woven into business priorities and support the company’s evolution is a critical conversation that you should be driving and engaging people in.

The IT Vision should feel like it is owned by more than just the CIO. The CIO provides the inspiration, the experience, and the direction, but to get true ownership, accountability, and trust, the vision needs to be owned and delivered by the leadership team. Engaging cross-functional and internal leaders in this vision will accelerate the journey toward achieving this transformation.

You already know there’s more to the CIO’s job than running a technology shop. Increasingly, the CIO is at the heart of the action, managing a large pool of talent, many of whom are in demand by other companies due to their specialized skills. The day-to-day work isn’t always easy but mastering the softer side of your role – culture, vision, value – can have long-term benefits for your career, the success of the people you lead, and your organization’s bottom line.

[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]

Diana Vienne is co-founder and senior partner of Notion Consulting, a leadership and transformation consultancy that helps organizations harness the full power of their people to drive change, advance their mission, and unleash their competitive edge.