This is what makes a great CIO: Five things you need to focus on in 2021

Successful CIOs need to focus on the softer skills if they want to excel, but they can't afford to completely forget about delivering reliable and innovative IT.

Businessman looking at the the city at night

In 2021, CIOs will need to be more effective, progressive, and self-aware.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

What makes a great IT leader? If there was ever a clear answer to the question, it's certainly been reshaped and reframed repeatedly during the past 12 months.

CIOs spent 2020 balancing a complex range of technical, business and managerial responsibilities. They had to set up remote-working capabilities almost overnight, while keeping IT systems up and running from a distance, all the time while looking after a geographically disparate and emotionally drained workforce.

This complex balancing act has had a big impact on business perceptions of IT leaders. In 12 months, CIOs have shifted from being behind-the-scenes service providers who made sure tech worked, to business leaders who will play a key role in shaping the post-pandemic enterprises they help to spearhead.

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

That's something experienced IT leader Paul Coby can see at first-hand. Having held CIO positions at John Lewis Partnership and British Airways, Coby joined science and chemicals giant Johnson Matthey in April 2018. He's spent the past 12 months making sure IT delivered results in challenging conditions. Like other tech chiefs, he says 2020 is a tipping point.

"I think a lot of CIOs and IT directors have had a similar experience – which is that people understand why IT matters," he says. "As a group of senior executives, we went through three years' acceleration of digital tech in three weeks during March and April. I think a lot of businesses understand digital tech now."

That's means tomorrow's IT leaders will have to live up to very different expectations; rather than working behind the scenes, they'll be expected to be visible and collaborative. Boards will needs IT chiefs who can help lead their businesses into a digitally-enabled future. That's a theme that resonates with Gartner, who recently revealed their 10 CIO Resolutions for 2021.

While overseeing technology is still a crucial part of the CIO role, all the analyst's resolutions are focused on soft skills. Gartner says this is a reflection of the challenges of the previous year and a response to the specific capabilities that will be needed during the coming 12 months.

"There is a lot of rejuvenation and rebuilding to be done. All of that impacts the way you do the work of technology-related business leadership and how you personally show up," says Daniel Sanchez-Reina, senior director analyst at Gartner.

The resolutions – which stretch from strategic planning to video-conferencing styles and onto culture building – broadly fall under three themes, with CIOs expected to be more effective, progressive, and self-aware.

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"Now, as a CIO, you've got to deliver."

Image: Johnson Matthey

Coby knows better than most the importance of communicating and collaborating efficiently and effectively as an IT professional. While he believes that the business finally gets the importance of digital transformation, he also believes this shift in perception has necessary consequences for CIOs.

"I think the pressures, probably as a result of that, have ratcheted up," he says. "It feels to me that everybody's got some form of digital transformation on the agenda. I don't think there's a boardroom or an executive team that doesn't recognise that IT is on the critical path for the delivery of the future. And now, as a CIO, you've got to deliver."

So what does that high-quality delivery look like? Coby draws on his experiences and suggests that five key features define a great IT leader:

1. Understanding people – "It's people that make businesses successful or not, and it's people who use the IT – and it's people in IT who make it work. That's kind of obvious, but quite easy to forget, because people in IT can get fixated upon the new technologies and the buzzwords. At Johnson Matthey, we want to develop people who have been doing a fantastic job in terms of supporting the business. But as we move forward, equipping them so that they can deliver what the new strategies are."

2. Building collaboration – "IT is a team sport. If architecture, and operations, and people building the projects and running the infrastructure aren't working effectively together, none of it will work. Once again, it's a clanging truism, but when the pressure is on, people have to work horizontally as well as vertically."

3. Valuing operational expertise – "One of the things that I learned early on is that if something goes wrong in IT, you are going to rely on the ability to access the knowledge of your key people. Therefore, valuing the people who keep the production lines around the world going is key. We've got people in 30 countries in IT here. Recognising that and valuing that is really important, as well as the folks who do the innovative stuff and the creative stuff."

4. Getting everyone involved in digital – "Everybody talks about digital transformation. What I've learned is that it's not about fancy front ends. You can't bolt on digital. Digital is about how the whole business works. And, therefore, if you don't involve the whole business, you won't get anywhere."

5. Locking into what the business wants – "It's quite easy for IT folks to think in IT terms, but you've got to try and constantly put yourselves in the shoes of the people you're working with because we're not an IT research organisation, we're the IT function of Johnson Matthey. So you need to focus – in our business – on what's going to get more customers, what takes cost out and what makes Johnson Matthey more sustainable."

While soft communication skills have undoubtedly become more important for CIOs, Coby says it's important to also remember that IT leaders will still be judged on whether they're providing rock-solid IT operations that support the business.

That's something that Gartner's resolutions recognise, too. The analyst says it's all too easy for tech chiefs to get lost in the business of being a CIO. Despite their focus on meetings, governance, compliance and other important responsibilities, CIOs also need to be able to speak to futuristic business ideas and emerging technologies. 

Perhaps the most important resolution for tech chiefs to recognise is that – while soft skills are likely to become a more important part of the job – the hard reality of delivering reliable, innovative and sustainable IT is still as important to being a great CIO as it's ever been.