Four ways to accelerate your tech career in 2018

CIO Strategies: How to make the most of your opportunities to shine.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Video: All about the CIO

The underlying role of technology in all businesses means IT leaders have the chance to extend their influence across organisational operations.

More than three-quarters (77 percent) of executives believe their key business priorities are dependent on technology, according to Gartner's annual CIO survey. The analyst says European CIOs have already increased the amount of time they spend on business leadership -- up from 30 percent three years ago to 41 percent today.

So, as digital transformation continues to accelerate, where should CIOs focus their attention to help develop their careers? Four technology chiefs offer their opinions on how smart executives can make the most of these new opportunities.

1. View raised stakeholder expectations as a chance to shine

Jonathan Mitchell, non-executive director at Harvey Nash and former CIO at Rolls Royce, helps mentor the next generation of CIOs. He says the modern IT leadership environment is very different to the industry he joined more than three decades ago.

For a start, change has become the norm. While technology professionals regularly move from smaller to medium businesses, and then onto blue-chip firms if the opportunities arise, they also encounter a series of obstacles on the way, many of which lie beyond the remit of a traditional IT professional.

"The challenge for CIOs entering the role now is that they face a rapidly-changing environment in terms of technology and business expectations," says Mitchell. "IT leaders are increasingly working beyond the confines of the technology department."

The common theme across all organisations and positions is often the demand for digital transformation. As the requirements for advanced technology continue to evolve, so will the skills requirements for digital leaders. Mitchell says no one should assume existing CIOs will automatically step into wider transformation roles.

"The pressure is on and I think the biggest problem for IT leaders is making sure that they survive," he says. "My personal research suggests the reason most CIOs fail is due to a lack of stakeholder engagement. Those who are not close to the CEO, COO, and CFO often don't last very long."

Yet the good news is that, while expectations are higher than they have ever been before, CIOs who react well to this burden will have the chance to embrace new opportunities across the organisation. "There's plenty of head room -- a typical CIO will do more than one job in the future says," says Mitchell.

2. Educate people about why technology matters

Tarah Lourens, who was recently made group CTO at payday loan specialist Wonga, says the potential impact of great IT leadership in the business is still underestimated. "I think IT has to do so much more than keep the lights on," she says.

"It's incredibly important that organisations recognise IT needs to be at the top table and it needs to be close to deliver value for the business and its customers. I'm very passionate about the fact that IT must be aligned with the business and the rest of the organisation must recognise the value of technology."

Lourens says the extent to which that alignment takes place varies between different companies. She says creating an association between IT and business aims is not a challenge in a technology-focused business like Wonga. However, Lourens says she must ensure all employees recognise the potential power of digital innovation.

"Other areas of the organisation can still view technology as complex and difficult to understand," she says. "A big part of my role is to educate people about why technology is complicated and why it matters. With that common understanding comes an appreciation of our work."

3. Be the glue that holds the company together

Renaud de Barbuat, group CIO at retail giant Carrefour, says there are certain elements that are key to modern IT leadership. He pays attention to data-focused roles during the ongoing digital transformation process, suggesting IT chiefs must help their organisations move from a hierarchical setup to a collaborative approach.

"Data must be shared between all parties across the company," says de Barbuat. "CIOs must facilitate this transversal view of the company. They must enable this transformation by providing access to data through a full, 360-degree view in a real-time manner."

He likens the emerging management structure to playing doubles in a tennis match, where one partner goes to the net and the other stays back. The modern CIO takes the role of the partner at the back of the court. The next-generation IT leader, says de Barbuat, is best-viewed as a digital leadership role with an enabling posture and position.

"CIOs must pick up the pieces and help the various entities in the organisation to work together," he says. "They must act as the glue between the various parts of the company. They must also show how an agile approach to technology and business can produce big benefits, both in terms of methods and capabilities."

4. Make sure non-IT peers recognise the power of the ecosystem

Experts regularly assert that CIOs need to spend more time engaging with line-of-business peers. Yet the focus on cross-organisation collaboration is far from complete. In fact, Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, says IT leaders will continue to spend more time with C-suite peers and be even more like business leaders in the future.

"CIOs must have a clear understanding of running a business and the art of the possible when it comes to technology," he says. "Working out how your business can make the most of technology will be key in the future. If you know both sides of the equation, then you're primed for success."

However, the onus to take a balanced approach does not just rest with IT chiefs. Dowden says non-IT leaders need to up their game when it comes to technical awareness. While line-of-business executives understand the strengths of big-name IT companies, like Google and Apple, they have limited awareness of the growing technology ecosystem.

"They need to get out and see what's possible and then think about how they might apply these systems and services in their own business," he says. "A lot of the fastest-growing companies are tech companies - and they're run by technologists because these people know how to exploit the systems and services to disrupt prevailing business models."

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