Four ways to become an indispensable manager

Tech execs are often asked to justify their existence: here are some ways they can prove their value to their organisation.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"A CIO will be seen as essential if they're someone who can sit at the top table and say how technology brings new solutions to business challenges," says IT chief Geert Ensing.

Image: iStock

While few companies would question the need for a chief executive or finance director, IT leaders are regularly challenged to prove their worth to the rest of the board and to the broader organisation.

Johan Kestens, managing director and CIO at ING Belgium, recognises that being viewed as essential is a tough aim to achieve. In an era where technology fashions change rapidly, he says CIOs must be able to count on the support of their senior c-suite peers.

"I think that trust is absolutely crucial," says Kestens, reflecting on the key to success for modern CIOs. "People have to trust you because you have significant budgets and you are investing in something that, for the most part, is often based on imagination."

The pressure on CIOs continues to grow, with more IT being hired by individual lines-of-business and other executives, such as the CMO and CDO, muscling into the technology chief's territory. So how can CIOs still prove they are essential to the business? ZDNet speaks to the experts.

1. Bring the board new solutions to business challenges

Geert Ensing is currently analysing and researching the role of the technology chief. The former CIO at ABN Amro has more than 30 years' experience of leading IT at major finance organisations. He believes there has been a rapid change in the role and function of a CIO.

"IT leaders today must be a partner with the business and translate the benefits of technology for the rest of the organisation," says Ensing. He says many CIOs will still be responsible to IT implementation, yet they must also help their c-suite peers understand the benefits of systems and services at a strategic level.

"A CIO will be seen as essential if they're someone who can sit at the top table and say how technology brings new solutions to business challenges. They need to be able to talk about what can be improved and what can be renewed," says Ensing, referring to his experience and research into the role of IT leader.

"Ideally, a good CIO will spend more time on innovation. A CIO whose time is absorbed by dealing with old systems is not offering enough strategically. The only thing you can do as a CIO is to allocate more of your agenda towards the elements that will really make a difference to the business."

2. Look beyond IT and move towards products and services

Christina Scott, chief product and information officer at the FT, says there is a big difference between a traditional IT director, who runs back office systems on a day-to-day basis, and modern CIOs, who are much more engaged with the rest of the business. "If you're an internally-focused technology leader, you could find that your job disappears in time," she says.

Scott points to the continued use of IT and business outsourcing, and the growing use of the cloud, which means organisations can push more operational concerns to external service providers. Yet a single-minded focus on the more mundane elements of IT is not the only thing holding some CIOs back.

A great deal of media attention is directed to the rise of the chief digital officer. Some experts suggest this new executive could usurp and, even replace, the IT leader. Scott, however, is keen to point out that there is a great difference between being a CDO and a highly specialised but engaged CIO.

"If your organisation has a CDO as a CIO then you should be very worried," she says. "The IT leader should be moving into that digital space. The role I've invented at the FT - where I'm responsible for IT and products - is all about finding a way for me to signify to the rest of the business that a great CIO is not just concerned with running technology systems and services."

3. Be a key element of the executive decision making process

Mark Foulsham, global CIO of insurance specialist esure, takes a different view. Rather than worrying about whether they are essential, Foulsham says CIOs should question whether they actually add value to the business through their own work. It is, he says, something he asks his own IT team to question.

"I get people to think about their personal return on investment (ROI) and what they believe is the value that they bring to the rest of the business," says Foulsham, who believes the model is applicable for all CIOs, not just the IT professionals in his own team.

"Keep your personal ROI in mind - if you don't believe you're delivering a good return then you're not adding value. If you are delivering results, then it's fair to assume that you are an essential part of the business' success."

Being at board meetings can help boost CIO credibility, adds Foulsham. But, in the end, delivery must be the focus. "Influence at a senior level is key," he says. "It's not essential that you're on the board but, as a CIO, you do need to be part of the strategic decision making process. And you must always deliver value."

4. Help other people in your team to do great things

Omid Shiraji, experienced IT leader and former CIO at Working Links, is another IT leader who questions whether CIOs should worry about being essential. In fact, he believes no executive should ever be viewed as irreplaceable.

"The business exists despite the often-transient nature of the people running the organisation," says Shiraji. "Any enterprise that becomes too reliant on a single individual opens itself up to danger."

Rather than sitting back and seeing their work as essential, CIOs should focus on enabling other people within the IT team to do great stuff. In particular, Shiraji says CIOs can help the rest of the business to understand its customers better, which increases the value of the best IT leaders.

"In IT, there's a tendency to become inwardly-focused," he says. "That can be to the detriment of a CIO's standing. Technology leaders should get involved in driving change at an organisation and then look to move on. The same goes, I think, for all IT professionals - working for different organisations helps build experiences and creates a rounded individual."

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