Influence, empathy key to CIO role

Successful IT leaders in this new decade will possess both influence and empathy to push IT strategies that align with business objectives and user needs, analysts say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor on

Newer trends such as IT consumerization and cloud computing have brought no fundamental change to the role of the CIO, but IT heads more than ever have to exercise empathy and influence in order to deliver IT projects of value to their organization, say analysts.

According to Steve Hodgkinson, Ovum's research director for IT in the Asia-Pacific region, the CIO role will "evolve, but not fundamentally change" in the new decade. The IT chief of a company is responsible for the effective and efficient use of ICT to achieve strategic business objectives--this has "not changed since the role was first invented", he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

Hodgkinson explained: "Technologies come and go, management fashions come and go, but the essence of the role remains the same."

However, he pointed out that "there is no 'one-size' CIO now or in the future", as not all organizations need the same types of CIOs. Some businesses may require an IT head to drive product innovation through cloud services, while others prefer executives that can provide hands-on management of complex legacy systems renewal, he said.

That said, "significant" trends such as cloud computing, consumerization of IT and social collaboration are increasingly "blurring" the boundaries of the organization, IT department and the employee, noted Hodgkinson.

This means the CIO role is evolving in this decade toward "influencing things that cannot be controlled" because they may not necessarily be located within the boundaries of the organization, owned or operated by the IT department, or used by employees, he added.

In light of this, Hodgkinson stressed that CIOs need to know how to "achieve personal influence up and down the organization", which is the essence of leadership in any domain of expertise including technology.

Without the "practical ability" to influence the way senior business executives view IT, a CIO is a "toothless tiger that is ignored", he said. Likewise, a CIO would be "all talk and no action", if he is unable to impact infrastructure, application, business process and product innovation outcomes, the analyst noted.

CIOs, he added, are relevant and useful to CEOs when they can shape business strategies as well as exert a strong influence over how the organization uses IT to implement business strategies.

Putting oneself in non-tech shoes
John Roberts, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said in an e-mail that CIOs have "known for years" their main responsibility is to deliver business results.

Citing a Gartner study released in March, he shared that CIO success is more than excelling at the dual role of a business-capable leader and IT expert. "Empathy", or the ability for the IT head to put himself in the shoes of users or business owners, is also key, because IT is driven by their needs--not the other way round.

According to the authors of the report, what is required of the CIO is to have the technical expertise and still be able "to converse with the organization in a way that 'regular' people can understand what they are saying", in order to foster "genuine trust and enthusiasm" for IT to enable business growth and innovation.

Rex Carter, senior vice president and CIO at Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), agreed that "empathy is a huge part" of any CIO success profile. Building strong relationships means getting into the field, understanding the issues, and taking ownership for the problems that colleagues are having, he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

"No IT agenda"
For CIOs to "demonstrate and deliver value" to the business, it means being a "business person first, communicator second, and technologist third", said Carter, who has been HDS CIO for five years.

Since CIOs must understand how to use IT to drive new capabilities and efficiencies that move the business forward, and also know the executive and corporate dynamics before launching an IT project, this basically means "there is no IT agenda", he pointed out.

The only agenda that counts is that of the business or executive team, and CIOs need to be "humble" and only drive initiatives that other operations divisions will own, he explained.

Annie Lim, manager of IT commerce division at recruitment agency Robert Walters Singapore, reiterated in an e-mail interview that a good CIO must possess more than sound IT knowledge, analytic capabilities, strong business acumen, and leadership skills.

"Excellent communication and relationship-building skills" as well as an ability to motivate staff and resolve issues are necessary as well if a CIO wants to "translate" their plans and strategies to different, non-IT stakeholders within their organization, she said.

Industry watchers noted in a previous ZDNet Asia report that companies which recognize IT as integral to their overall business strategy also acknowledge the role and relevancy of the CIO making business--and not just technical--decisions in the boardroom.

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