Future of the CIO: Three skills you'll need to succeed in 2021

The question for many CIOs is what they will do with their new-found authority - and whether they can hold on to it.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

For CIOs, the New Year will bring even more demands for digital transformation.

Buoyed by the rapid and successful move to the cloud in 2020, many firms will be keen to explore how digital systems and services can help their organisations support new growth opportunities and business models. 

According to research by recruiter Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG, six out of ten (61%) CIOs report that IT leaders are more influential as a result of the crisis. The question for many is what they will do with their new-found authority, and whether they can hold on to it.

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Lily Haake, head of the CIO Practice at Harvey Nash, says the increased influence of CIOs in 2020 is in sharp contrast to the response of boards to technology in the wake of the last major global shock – the great recession in 2008. Back then, the influence of the CIO dropped.

Harvey Nash and KPMG research says the increased value of the technology leader during 2020 has been driven by CIOs leaning on their traditional role of delivering networks and IT infrastructure.

"There's certainly some suggestion that the perception of the CIO has changed forever," says Haake,.

Still, to retain that authority, CIOs will need to create a convincing narrative for further digital transformation.

Haake says successful CIOs need to be adaptable and collaborative. Purchasing of IT by non-IT managers continues to rise and tech chiefs will need to communicate across all lines of business.

"Technology ownership is becoming far more distributed. And it might be owned in some part by a CMO, CEO or MD, and the CIO really has to be able to influence all of those different people to drive a successful technology strategy," she says.

The collaborative nature of modern digital leadership is recognised by Steve Otto, CTO at The R&A, golf's governing body. He reflects on the changes he's seen in technology leadership in the recent past and says that successful CIOs are becoming more like business generalists, rather than people who just push IT for IT's sake.

"Next-generation IT leadership is about more than just technology – it's about operational change and engagement with stakeholders and engagement with the business. I think successful modern IT leadership is about generalists with enthusiasm and communication," he says.

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Before joining The R&A in 2004, Otto worked at NASA Langley in the US and as a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Otto still lectures at the institution and is an honorary chair in mathematics. His broad business experiences helps him to lead the IT department – and next-generation digital leaders need a similar mix of skills.

"They're people who are broadly competent, but they don't have to be experts in particular fields of IT. I think sometimes when you when you deal with experts in particular fields you end up with people who suffer from thinking, 'I've got a solution, now find me a problem'," he says.

That's a sentiment that resonates with Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council. He also believes next-generation CIOs won't necessarily work their way to the top by managing IT infrastructure.

"People are going to have to be a bit more rounded and commercially and politically savvy, because it's going to be a more tricky world over the next few years," says Gannon, who believes future tech leaders will have to focus on articulating how digital services can help solve new business challenges, which is something he already gets to do at Sheffield.

"What I love about this role is I can push the art-of-the-possible stuff through a business-change perspective, but also have control over the delivery of that from a tech and digital perspective. It's great to be able to have influence over both of those things," he says.

For Sharm Manwani, executive professor of IT and digital leadership at Henley Business School, the ability of next-generation CIOs to influence their peers will come down to skills in three core areas: technical, business, and interpersonal: "Your ability to utilise all three of those in a combined way is what will make you successful."

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Technical capability gets your foot in the door of the IT department, while an aptitude for business takes you to the management level. Manwani says it's the final skill, interpersonal, that will be crucial for IT leaders who want to drive long-term change.

"Your interpersonal skills need to be really honed and sharp," he says. "As a CIO, you've got to be comfortable talking to the CEO, the CFO and COO."

Of course, technical and business skills still remain crucial as you communicate with the C-suite. If you're not technically capable and you're not talking about IT in the right way, then the C-suite's not going to listen to you. If you haven't got an understanding of the business value of doing IT, then – once again – they're not going to talk with you.

But even if you excel in those two areas, if you don't have the ability to engage with the board, to tell the right story that immediately connects, then it's not going to work, says Manwani.

"You've got to grab the attention of people. Next-generation leadership is basically about storytelling – it's about telling a story that's relevant to the context your business is operating within," he says.

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