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Technology expert to business leader: The evolution of the CIO

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Chief information officers are often experts in technology, but business strategy leadership distinguishes trailblazers from the rest of the pack.

Today’s IT leaders need to strike the right balance between technology and business strategy, a panel of experts said at a recent webinar hosted by the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Many CIOs are more comfortable with technical innovation than with formulating business strategy, embracing revenue-generation responsibilities, working with boards of directors, or driving change management. But these are all now important parts of the role.

Research reflects the evolution of the CIO from technology expert to enterprise business leader. According to CIO.com’s 2023 State of the CIO survey, many CIOs are already playing a strategic leadership role. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents said they expect to actively drive business innovation, develop and refine business strategy, and identify opportunities for competitive differentiation over the next three years. The survey also found that CEOs think CIOs should prioritize strengthening IT and business collaboration, and CIOs’ most critical focus is driving business innovation.

“At the end of the day, IT is the business and the business is IT,” said panel moderator Shamim Mohammad, executive vice president and chief information and technology officer at CarMax. “They are all together, and ultimately there need to be common objectives.”

Yet it can be difficult for CIOs to navigate the transition from a technology focus to a broader business role. The panelists offered the following advice.

1. Anchor everything in business value.

Tech leaders have a tendency to talk about technology when they should really frame solutions in the context of how they deliver for the business. Too many discussions cast IT projects as cost-cutting initiatives because such arguments are often persuasive. Yet IT leaders need to go further and ground discussions about technology with senior leaders in terms they understand — anchored in business value and supported by return-on-investment metrics.

71%

In a 2022 survey, 71% of respondents said they expect CIOs to drive business innovation and develop business strategy.

“We called it the three-finger punch,” said George Corbin, an executive who has led innovation and business transformation at major firms like Mars Inc. and Marriott International, describing his tactics for presenting IT proposals to top management. “We would essentially come in and say, ‘Here are three facts you need to know: We’re losing share amongst the largest customer segment; we’re losing share to new intermediaries, which cost us 10x per transaction; and our loyalty is dropping.’ We set the tone, showing we are anchored on key business needs and how a digital proposal solves for it.”

2. Use storytelling and communication skills.  

A recitation of facts, especially highly technical ones, won’t grab the attention of the C-suite — or the broader enterprise, for that matter. CIOs need to build a compelling narrative that ties the technology road map to business strategy, including how it addresses specific pain points or advances key revenue goals. Corbin said he once had trouble making a case for an initiative, even though he was armed with a 160-slide presentation deck. By translating the same argument into a four-minute video depicting how the initiative would enhance the customer experience, he was able to break through and get the executive team on board.

Especially during the pandemic, “CIOs had to broaden their abilities to communicate and connect with people,” said Maryfran Johnson, the host of CIO.com’s CIO Leadership Live video show and podcast. “And the way you connect with people is often through stories.”

3. Be visible and inspire.

CIOs need to take every opportunity to get out and communicate the IT vision, whether it’s presenting at town halls or participating in board meetings. Painting a vivid vision of the technology strategy not only drives buy-in but also helps recruit champions across the organization who will be crucial to success.

On a personal front, CIOs should actively promote their own brand, including on social media sites like LinkedIn. “Don’t think of LinkedIn as a resume page but rather as a promotion for your personal product,” Corbin said. “What is the value prop that you bring? That’s what your LinkedIn profile should convey.”

Johnson agreed. “For better or worse, [LinkedIn] is our professional network in technology,” she said. “That’s where you want to start connecting with other CIOs.”

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She advised people to take a close look at their social media profiles, because other people will. “Every CIO I know wants their company to be a magnet for technology talent,” she said. “Where is tech talent going to go and check you out as a boss and see how often you’re posting? See what people are saying about the things that you’re posting about your staff and what they’re doing, the projects you’re working on.”

4. Nurture trusted relationships with C-suite peers.  

An understanding of the business and strong communication skills are the foundation on which CIOs can build bridges to executive team counterparts and other areas of the business. When Mohammad came onboard at CarMax, he didn’t start pitching big transformation or IT projects. Rather, he spent time getting to know colleagues and partners to understand what their pain points were and what challenges the organization faced. This allowed him to zero in on areas with the most business impact. He also created alliances with senior executives such as the chief marketing officer and chief operating officer, which earned him instant credibility with the rest of the leadership team. 

“Anything we did came across as a company initiative, not a technology initiative, marketing program, or an operations initiative,” Mohammad said. “It started out with building solid relationships, having mutual trust, and focusing on common challenges that needed to be overcome for the business.”

Read next: Who owns digital innovation? Who cares?

For more info Sara Brown Senior News Editor and Writer