What it takes to lead today's digital ecosystem: CIOs share advice

Success in this new normal requires collaboration, smart partnerships, and an unwavering focus on people - learn what leading CIOs are prioritizing
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After years of accelerated digital transformation, CIOs are now playing a central and critical role in defining the digital future - but the best IT leaders would quickly tell you that they could not have gotten here on their own. Success in this new normal takes collaboration, smart partnerships, and an unwavering focus on the people who make up a strong digital ecosystem.

For the past 15 years, in conjunction with its annual event, the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium has recognized excellence in IT leadership through its CIO award program. This year, we had a chance to ask each of the award finalists what they believe is required to lead in today’s digital ecosystem.

From celebrating setbacks, to building a culture of curiosity, to leading with empathy, learn how leading CIOs are driving innovation and positioning their organizations for success.

Rethink boundaries, build win-win relationships, and lean into agile ways of working

Wafaa Mamilli

Wafaa Mamilli, executive vice president and chief information and digital officer, Zoetis: For every company across industries, building digital ecosystems is a requirement – not an option. CIOs are positioned and expected to unlock innovation and value for our companies; we must build on what got us here and challenge ourselves in new ways.

From my experience and insights from our work at Zoetis, the world’s largest animal health company, CIOs need to:

  • Be relentless about bringing insights from the outside in. First, lean in and help our companies rethink our customers and industry boundaries to reimagine the value chain and solve for pain points along the customers’ journeys. Then, once engaged in digital ecosystems, help our companies sort through the opportunities and threats that abound in the digital ecosystems in which we participate.
  • Build and nurture alliances and partnerships. Here, partner with vision and intentionality within and outside industry. We must also thrive towards win-win relationships where all members are incentivized and capture sufficient value from their role, which allows them to continue to participate.
  • Celebrate the setbacks. While participating in digital ecosystems is necessary, the road to success is full of uncertainty. Embrace and learn from failures, stop what’s not working or adapt and pivot fast
  • Lean in with agile ways of working. Leverage the organizational change management experiences we acquired throughout our careers.
  • Think big and bold. Last but not least, digital ecosystems are powered with tech, data, and AI. So be bold – think platforms, think globally, act locally, and work towards the future state with speed and agility.

In the process, remember to have fun – because there has never been a better time to be in tech.

[ What leadership challenges and opportunities are CIOs prioritizing now? Read CIO role: 5 key opportunities for IT leaders in 2022. ]

Put people first, and lead with empathy

Vagesh Dave

Vagesh Dave, global VP & CIO, McDermott International, Ltd.: It’s the most exciting time to be a CIO given the acceleration in technology advancements in every facet of our personal lives and businesses. The last couple of years have shown us the importance of human touch and collaboration, as well as the difference digital technology has made by enabling safe ways for us to interact for our physical and mental well-being.

As a CIO you have to lead with empathy. Collaboration, co-creation, and partnerships are critical to navigating the new digital ecosystems, not with just your customers and vendors but sometimes with your competitors, to elevate the entire industry and to drive innovation that creates a sustainable future. Leadership today requires creating a conscious culture – a culture where everyone feels they are seen, heard, connected, supported, and proud to bring their true authentic self to work. And as leaders, we must put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of our business, which is ultimately about putting our employees first.

[ Discover how priorities are changing. Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: Maintaining momentum on digital transformation. ] 

Build digital acumen to co-create business value

James Mcglennon

James McGlennon, EVP and CIO, Liberty Mutual Insurance: Over the past decade, the partnership between business and technology has been one of the most significant shifts in my time. Today, technology is no longer in a silo – it is recognized at every level of the company as a strategic business enabler, differentiator, and competitive edge.

An agile mindset and innovative thinking uniquely position technology leaders to drive value and lead change when they act as strategic business partners.

To get there, and to remain successful, you need to:

  • Build trust to create stronger strategic partnerships focused on co-creating business value together
  • Develop learning programs at all levels of the company to educate the business about technology and its costs, so we can create transparency and make better-informed decisions together
  • Relentlessly focus on customer, employee and broker centricity
  • Ensure equity and inclusion for all employees to fully leverage the wealth of unique backgrounds, strengths and experiences to create an environment for belonging, and fulfilling careers

Foster a culture of experimentation, driven by curiosity and guided by purpose

Manjol Kumbhat

Manoj Kumbhat, CDO & Global CIO, Kimberly-Clark: Our digital technology team cares for our consumers and customers by leading the charge to accelerate the company’s digital transformation. We encourage our teams to cultivate a growth mindset fueled by curiosity and guided by our purpose, and we foster a hands-on culture of experimentation that is enabled by our innovation-to-scale framework. But, we know we can’t do any of this alone.

Leadership requires better collaboration with our business ecosystem, our customers, and vendors. That collaboration is reinforced by exchanging data to enhance our planning and execution capabilities. Ultimately this results in business growth and a better experience for our consumers.

We achieve mutual success with our partner ecosystem by actively working with technology service providers, emerging start-ups, research institutions and academia to accelerate our innovation maturity and digital delivery capabilities.

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

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.