Leadership skills for CIOs to improve business

CIO India
I recently attended a CIO conference in Gurgaon, Delhi-NCR — sponsored by a global IT major. The conference was attended by CTOs and CIOs of various business houses and each one of them was talking about their unique challenges.

I observed CIOs and CTOs understanding and trying to know them. I had some observations which I tried to correlate with the management theories I learnt during MBA and also with the business scenarios that these leaders were fending during their jobs.

When I reached my hotel room I started thinking about what skills do these CIOs really emanate to be successful in their roles. I am trying to present my thoughts on what skills successful CIOs are expected to have. I am not touching here on generic leadership skills but the subtle ones which are specific to the challenges today’s CIOs encounter.

CIOs have limited budgets compared to the enormous demands from business. It is very critical for the CIOs to do “strategic prioritization” in terms of market trends, technology, customer demands and business plans. The decision to invest in the right solutions and infrastructure is crucial to the growth of the business and customer bliss.

The second most valuable skill the CIOs need to have is “quick decision making – sometimes well-informed and sometimes not so well-informed”. The skill lies in understanding the complete business scenario, budget limitations, information security, business demands and rational behind the specific requirement in consideration. Sometimes, just delaying the decision takes care of the situation by itself and sometimes a scenario needs a proactive involvement to rectify or put a stitch in time. The CIO has to be in a position to analyze things at a lightning speed.

In today’s scenarios, business continuity is vital for survival of business and for meeting the basic customer needs. For every system that the CIO vouches for, the aspect of planning for Crisis management and having the contingency in place is expected though not explicitly mentioned. Thus it is imperative for the CIOs to have a firm and workable “Crisis  and Contingency planning” strategy in place. This may be to tackle natural calamities or to manage security threats to the information shared within and across businesses and customers.

The CIOs often face situations where the business demands could not be met due to security constraints or some other system limitations. The business has different priorities and there would be tremendous pressure on CIOs to meet the business demands as it may impact the bottom-line of the business. The CIOs need to use their business and technology acumen to overcome such situations and either find a solution or convince the business guys to look out for some other channels. This balancing act between “Constraints and Business Priorities” is very much necessary to fulfill the role.

The above situations may lead to conflict of interest and there could be push and pool between business leaders. There are situations where some set of business leaders have certain requirements or expectations and another set has completely different requirements. “Power Balancing Act” of the CIOs can only help them get out of such clashes. Such situations often challenge the CIOs with their “Interpersonal skills”. Their ability to convince all stakeholders about which way to go and that also without breaking any bones or creating sour relationships that could make the environment unfriendly and uncooperative. The chief information officer should be in a position to come out of this unscathed with an all agreeable strategic solution that benefits the business.

In the dynamic business environment that we live in, there are bound to be repetitive changes in the stakeholder demands, business situations, budgets, priorities, organizational structures  and power centers within the organization. This leads to a need for effective “Change Management”. The CIOs have to keep an eye on the internal and external environmental forces and come up with data and information architectures and security policies that are flexible but robust and stretchable but relevant at all times. The adaptability of Information strategy in such unconventional situations is key to the success of the CIOs.

The often inadvertent skill that CIOs need to showcase is “Creative Problem Solving”. Now you may ask what has creativity to do with Information management and the role of a CIO. The ability of CIO to brainstorm solutions and come up with creative, unique ideas to provide solutions to the business is often not given key importance. Just having technology prowess and understanding business is not sufficient in today’s scenarios. The creative aspect ideating, evaluating and thinking out of box helps them excel in their roles.

For building a sustainable competitive advantage, the CIOs need to do “Core Competence Analysis”. This involves looking at resource capabilities, predicting competitive behaviors, identifying and retaining the USP (Unique selling propositions) of your offering and services. It is not just the business responsibility to develop or deliver products and services beyond the customer expectations or to create offerings superior to the competition. The CIO plays a very active role is supporting it by providing the right information, analysis and supporting systems for being successful in the marketplace.

“Building High Performance Culture” in the backdrop of the shifting technology landscapes, ever changing business environments and motivation of the teams is a challenge in itself. Unless the teams in CIO organization are built with High Performance delivery, the business would suffer. The CIOs need to keep raising the bar and lead by example to motivate the teams to match up to the high expectations.

So, it is not just what you deliver that makes one a great CIO, it is these inherent skills, balance between business objectives and technology constraints, Innovation  and People management, continuous learning  and creativity, Stakeholder management  and Collaboration, Inspirational behavior  and communication ability is what would set the good CIOs apart from the others. Remember, CIOs are not responsible for building systems but they are expected to build people with right capability who can deliver the results.
Sanjiv Patankar
By Sanjiv Patankar

Sanjiv Patankar is an ICT professional with 20 years experience working with leading technology companies such as IBM, Infosys, Vodafone, Ericsson, among others. He is currently working with Ericsson as general manager leading the Product development in Network Analytics area.