The CIO's biggest challenge? It's nothing to do with technology

CIOs need to rethink how they present themselves or they will be defined by others.

IT leadership: Influential CIOs deliver emerging tech for the business

The new year is the traditional time for management gurus to start dispensing their wisdom to guide us through the next 12 months and this year has been no exception. 

Yet one thing I've noticed: CIOs are conspicuous by their absence from this horde. While there's a lot of back-patting and self-congratulating from some business leaders, still IT chiefs tend to keep a much lower profile.

In many ways, the reticence of CIOs to talk big about what they do best is a reflection of the position they hold. More like a service provider than a business leader, CIOs have been expected to make sure – above all else – that the IT just works.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

For all the well-intentioned talk from consultants like Deloitte and McKinsey about the need for modern CIOs to engage and innovate, the real proof-point of success for a tech chief is still a solid, secure and dependable technology infrastructure.

Many CIOs are happy to let their work do their talking. If systems and services are online, then a large part of the job is done.

This focus on operational stability has been truer than ever before in the past 12 months. CIOs have rightly pushed pioneering tech-led projects on to the back burner to focus on establishing cloud services and maintaining network uptime.

That was the correct focus, of course – the tireless efforts of IT chiefs and their teams meant businesses and their employees could carry on working in the extremely challenging conditions we have been experiencing. 

While the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold a tight grip on economies and societies, there is also hope that 2021 will eventually mark the start of a post-COVID era, with a radical change in the way we work and the locations we work from.

For CIOs, this transition is another huge challenge to tackle. Boards are on the lookout for CIOs who can help shape the workplace of the future, says analyst Gartner, suggesting IT leaders are increasingly hired for their emotional intelligence not just their technical acumen.

Gartner's research suggests CEOs want determined CIOs who make timely decisions while also displaying the emotional dexterity to be tactful and supportive to their colleagues and peers.

The analyst defines what those characteristics look like in a next-generation CIO: determination refers to a firmness of resoluteness and an ability to turn decisions into actions, despite how tough those calls might be; sensitivity, on the other hand, is the quality of feeling empathetic toward others' difficulties and acting accordingly.

Future CIOs, in short, will think business first and technology very much second. They'll focus on the issues their organisation faces – whether that is new working conditions, fresh customer demands or disrupted business models – and then work with their peers across the organisation to think about how technology might help provide a solution to these challenges.

Moving beyond digital change and towards this concentration on true business transformation means tech leaders will need to take a more proactive executive position. CIOs will need to work alongside their C-suite peers as trusted advisors, rather than just being IT managers who are best-known for delivering reliable services.

This transition in role and responsibility will be a bigger issue for some IT chiefs than others, especially those who still feel more comfortable tinkering in the data centre than talking in the board room.

While there's nothing wrong with showing a keen interest in the finer details of technology implementation, that's not the kind of CIO the business needs. Gartner says the most in-demand leadership skills now and for the next 10 years are soft skills.

The good news for CIOs is that the CEO's desire to find determined yet sensitive leaders plays well into the tech chief's core characteristics. While IT leaders might have been quiet in shouting about their successes traditionally, the past 12 months have shone a light on their quiet determination to get vital jobs done at a rapid pace.

As one CIO said to me recently, tech leaders are great at what they do; now is the time to just be a little bit more open about how they do it. CIOs must ensure they engage honestly and effectively about the challenges their team and the rest of the business faces. 

That's something that resonates with Gartner, who says transparency is the most admired emotional dexterity leadership competency, followed by authentic communication and collaboration. 

Pioneering CIOs already use communications techniques to promote the work of the IT department and to create a two-way dialogue with the rest of the business.

Some CIOs create regular newsletters to update the rest of the business on their team's activities. This can also be used to prompt feedback on current issues and likely priorities.

Others run town-hall meetings that showcase the work of the IT department. These meetings often include a keynote speaker – such as the CEO or CFO – who reflects on the digital strategy being adopted by the business.

Whatever techniques they call upon, the key to success will be to stop worrying about infrastructure and to start embracing broader interest in IT.

Laura Dawson, CIO at the London School of Economics, says she often thinks of that move away from traditional IT management as "shedding the cardigan".

She says CIOs must take every opportunity to influence beyond their authority: "They must start being more confident and assertive and comfortable in the role."

IT professionals looking to develop their leadership style must ensure that everyone everywhere knows how they and their teams will help the organisation to pursue its digital-led business transformation through 2021.

You don't need to be self-indulgent when it comes to self-promotion but you do need to make sure you're determined to help the business meets its new objectives. CIOs have a good story to tell about the work they've done and the challenges ahead. And if you have a compelling story, you should be willing to tell it.