IT strategy: How to be an influential digital leader

Telling people what to do isn't the same as persuading them that you are right. Here's how to get them onboard with your vision.

How to engage with Generation Z in the workplace Ian Golding, interim CIO at the Natural History Museum, talks about the evolving CIO role and how to lead people successfully.

From the internal IT department to the boardroom and out into the wider marketplace, modern CIOs must be able to influence a broad sweep of individuals. The success of a CIO will be directly related to their ability to get people to buy into their vision. But how can CIOs get people to follow their command without being too controlling? Five experts give their best-practice techniques for influential digital leadership

1. Show people great results

Alex von Schirmeister, chief digital, technology and innovation officer at RS Components, recognises commanding without controlling is a tough balance to achieve. "I wish I could say I have a 100 per cent success rate all of the time -- influencing people is a very hard thing to do. I try and get it right but sometimes I don't," he says.

However, there a couple of key tactics. "Use hard facts," says von Schirmeister. "It's easy to influence someone when you can show them how something worked because of the data. The argument for the decisions you're making is then very clear."

Another tactic for CIOs looking to assert their influence is to make sure they and their team establish a track record of credibility. "It's easier to influence people if you've had success in an area before or that you've proven more often than not that you were right," says von Schirmeister.

"Offer something in return. Show how experimentation and testing in one market can help demonstrate how success might be spread globally. Use the fact that you have a portfolio to show how things might work in other locations."

2. Be honest and humble

Like von Schirmeister, Gideon Kay -- who is European CIO at Dentsu Aegis Network -- says IT leaders must be alert to the fact that people on the board increasingly have a take on technology, just like they would on sales, marketing and operations. Kay says CIOs must see this new interest in digital transformation as an opportunity to influence.

"You don't have to bite your lip," he says. "Once you've built your credibility, which you need to do pretty quickly, and providing you've built a reputation for explaining technology in the right way -- which is about talking in terms of the business and commercial impact -- then you can give the business the definitive line on technology."

SEE: Tech budgets 2019: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Kays says CIOs can use their experience to say which services the business should be worried about, and which are the ones that don't matter: "These are the things that are hot, and these are the things that are not," he explains.

"You need to have a sense of humility and honesty -- once you've built a reputation, you can be honest and say you're not sure how a technology will impact the business. And you should be honest -- it's really important."

3. Use exemplars as magnets for success

That sense of openness is something that resonates with KPMG director Peter Ironside, who says the more open and transparent you can be as a CIO, the better. "The IT leaders that are inspirational have a lot of self-confidence," he says.

"They understand the technology but critically then can turn that into business language and they focus on the element that will create the most value. They focus on the customer -- they're self-confident and prepared to step out of their comfort zone and want to drive change across the rest of the business."

Ironside says CIOs must avoid falling into the trap of hiring people and buying technology without knowing what the likely result will be for the business. Before spending cash, CIOs need to invest time finding the one or two use cases where digital can make a difference to the bottom line.

"Find the exemplars in terms of any transformation," says Ironside. "If you can get a couple of those right, those successes will become a magnet for other parts of the business. At the end of the day, it's results and the bottom line that make a difference."

4. Encourage willing collaboration

Albert Ellis, chief executive of recruitment specialist Harvey Nash, recognises that it can be a tough challenge to command people without controlling them. He says that -- in many ways -- the ability to influence is an innate capability.

"You've either got the skills or you haven't," he says. "You can learn some elements but being able to influence a group of individuals is an enormous asset for any leader."

SEE: 10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers (free PDF)

Ellis says CIOs should not fall into the trap of believing their word automatically matters most. If you're in a business with a hierarchical structure, it's very easy to mistakenly think that you're always influencing people -- and you might not be, says Ellis.

"Because of the top-down culture, people will just listen and obey and try and carry out the leader's instructions. Influencing is a very different situation that requires an element of willing collaboration, which is different to top-down management," he says.

Ellis reflects on his experiences and concludes that the best way to encourage people to follow your lead is to meet them face-to-face and talk about the options. "If you're trying to influence different parties, you've got to bring the people together," he says.

5. Bring everyone on the same journey

Richard Corbridge, who is chief digital and information officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, faces a different leadership challenge to his peers from the private sector. Rather than just influencing technologists or board members, Corbridge must also ensure a broad collection of clinical and health professionals can understand the value of IT investment.

Internally, Corbridge works hard to ensure people around the Trust are fully behind his priorities. "We do a lot of work to paint the picture," he says.

"We use clinical engagement and take people along for the transformation journey. It's all about making sure everyone is on the same journey with us. Everyone needs to understand the outcome and where we're trying to get to."

That collaborative effort includes a range of techniques. Corbridge points in particular to his current work around the Digital Ward, where the Trust showcases a range of systems and services in a hospital setting that could be potentially used in the healthcare process.

"Our intention is to use that as an exemplar for the rest of the organisation who can see why it's worth investing time and effort in digital transformation," he says. "They can come to the Digital Ward and see the potential end point and the benefits of our work."

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