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Six CIO tips for working with business management colleagues

IT is no longer a “black box” that sits separate from the functions it supports – six CIOs give their advice on how to win over your business management colleagues

Long gone are the days when an IT leader could forge a career by simply keeping enterprise systems up and running. Modern CIOs must move beyond the safe confines of the technology department and work with senior executives across all lines of business.

However, making the transition from IT manager to business leader is far from straightforward. Perception remains a key challenge for CIOs, many of whom are seen as technology experts first and foremost. We speak to the experts and find out six top tips for helping CIOs to win over their business colleagues.

A pipeline of requirements

Jaeger CIO Cathy McCabe set her stall out quickly when she joined the company at the end of 2014. In her first presentation to the board, McCabe explained how she believed IT-enabled change is crucial. She talked about how technology could help the business develop and grow.

McCabe recognises that line-of-business executives often work in silos and might even think about implementing spot IT systems in their own departments. McCabe took a different tack. In her first 60 days at Jaeger, she established roadmap meetings, where members of the IT team met managers from each of the functions.

These meetings still continue and provide an opportunity for IT and line-of-business employees to discuss where systems and services are working well or where improvements are required.

Cathy McCabe, Jaeger

“Start to develop a pipeline of requirements for different departments”

Cathy McCabe, Jaeger
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“It’s about finding out the priorities of other parts of the business and working out what kind of technology we could implement,” says McCabe. “You start to develop a pipeline of requirements for different departments, such as HR and marketing.”

And her ability to build a strong bridge between business and IT is already recognised at the highest possible level. After becoming CIO in late 2014, McCabe was recently promoted to the executive board.

“It was great for me,” she says. “To make the board so quickly is a terrific accolade. In the long term, it will make such a difference. Being part of the leadership team means you have the opportunity to hear everything that’s happening across the business. You can contribute to debates and also suggest potential IT systems to the challenges that your peers face.”

Empower users to create technical systems

Richard Norris, head of IT and business change at Reliance Mutual Insurance, has led a technological transformation of the finance firm with the support of his executive peers. Not long after joining Reliance in 2014, Norris worked with the C-suite to understand why certain projects needed to be prioritised and the role his peers could play in this programme.

Such sponsorship meant he was able to focus on the areas that would deliver the biggest potential benefits for the rest of the business. “The consumerisation of IT has driven demand into new areas. Everybody’s a technology expert now. That’s a challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity,” says Norris.

“If those people do their research, and then come to you for advice, you can put the wrap around to make sure those ideas work. Shadow IT doesn’t have to be a problem. You can empower users to create their own technical systems to the business challenges they face.”

Norris says he has learnt a great deal about entrepreneurial spirit during his career. In one of his earlier roles, while IT director at Cullum Capital Ventures, he was given the opportunity to join marketing meetings from an IT perspective.

“I’d sit there with one open ear and would give technical input,” he says. “That was fantastic. They wanted me there because they could use me to help stand up potential ideas. Being there, as a trusted advisor, was a really valuable experience for me and the marketing department.”

Work collaboratively

Christina Scott, chief product and information officer (CIPO) at the Financial Times (FT) and soon to take over as chief technology officer (CTO) at News UK, says an effective working partnership with other business leaders requires a good understanding of what each executive is trying to achieve.

“You shouldn’t be at war with your C-suite peers,” she says. “You’re all trying to achieve the best possible outcome for the business.”

Scott recognises that many chief marketing officers (CMOs) might now have an increased budget to buy technology systems. The sentiment tallies with analyst Gartner’s suggestion that CMOs will spend more on IT than CIOs by 2017.

However, many non-IT managers who have started procuring their own systems and services would be alarmed if they were told that, as a result, they were also responsible for information security. “And that’s where they’ll look for the CIO’s assistance,” says Scott.

The close interaction between the technology the FT uses and the things it sells led Scott to expand her management portfolio into product management. As CIPO, Scott is responsible for understanding the market, the customer and the various requirements of users across the organisation. “CIOs need to understand how they can help people and how both parties can work together,” she says.

Get the timing right for delivering IT advice

Andrew Marks, former Tullow Oil CIO and now the UK and Ireland managing director for energy in Accenture Technology Strategy, says debates about the nature of the CIO’s relationship with other C-level executives should be related to a broader analysis of partnership.

He says successful engagements with C-suite executives focus on a number of core areas, and are relevant for sectors during phases of growth and when they are grappling with cost challenges, such as those faced by the energy sector in the current low oil price environment.

Great CIOs, he says, are able to have conversations with their peers about challenges in their specific area of the business and the potential use of technology for innovation to create value. Such CIOs act – first and foremost – as business leaders, and then as technology chiefs.

Andrew Marks

“A CIO needs to have confidence to ask the right question to highlight when something could be done better”

Andrew Marks, Accenture Technology Strategy

“They truly understand their colleagues’ functions and their business priorities,” he says. “CIOs who want to develop successful partnerships should not be shy about enquiring about other areas of the organisation and asking what might be perceived to be stupid questions.”

Marks likens the approach to that of TV detective Columbo, suggesting that having a keen eye on the ordinary and extraordinary is critical. “A CIO needs to have confidence to ask the right question to highlight when something could be done better – and that skill is just as important as addressing a problem after pain is being felt,” he says.

“Offer your opinion when you know there’s a business problem that technology can solve. Don’t forget that, as a business partner, the CIO must inevitably be able to provide systems and services first and foremost. Aim to deliver your IT-based deduction when the time is right.”

Be proactive as you attempt to understand your peers’ aims

Former Working Links CIO Omid Shiraji says strong relationships with other C-suite executives boil down to success in a couple of key areas. “Remember that they’re human beings,” he says. “Just like you, they have drivers – and you must understand those drivers.”

Shiraji says CIOs should spend time trying to understand their business peers’ targets and pressures. Once you understand their aims and objectives, you can work towards ensuring IT is aligned to business drivers and demonstrate how the work of the technology team supports their aims.

“Ask each executive for a number one priority,” he says. “You need to recognise that their objective could well change on a weekly basis. More importantly, you need to be OK with that constant change.”

Read more about IT and business working together

IT leaders can also be proactive. Shiraji says it can be helpful to show senior peers a system or a gadget that could make their life easier. In many cases, the consumerisation of IT means your C-suite colleagues will already have a strong awareness of technology, particularly a digitally engaged marketing executive.

“However, don’t feel threatened by the CMO,” says Shiraji, but adds that IT leaders should not patronise the marketing chief. “If you think of the CMO as just a custodian of technology then you risk losing their respect. Remember that they’ll probably be more tech literate than you.”

Where CMOs will lack awareness, suggests Shiraji, is around the implementation of systems and the exploitation of information. “That’s where you, as the CIO, can add value,” he says.

Engage with people personally

Rob Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure and operations at ICBC Standard Bank, likes to think of himself as a people person. After starting his career with the finance firm on the helpdesk, Threadgold moved quickly to the top of the technology career ladder. He says strong relationships with business peers and IT colleagues have been crucial.

“I’ve always made sure that I build strong, personal connections,” says Threadgold. “Sometimes it’s just the simple stuff, like saying ‘hello’ every morning and remembering to ask people how their children are getting on. It’s great to talk about business, but you need to engage with people at all levels.”

Threadgold’s broad role allows him to keep in touch with people across the organisation. He is responsible for production and runs IT outside the firm’s London head office. As an aside, Threadgold is also in charge of global estate services, which encompasses properties and utilities.

“Success in leadership comes from building great relationships,” he says. “If you acknowledge people’s interests and the great work they’re doing, then you’re more likely to get the best out the people you work with.”

Rob Threadgold, ICBC Standard Bank

“Success in leadership comes from building great relationships”

Rob Threadgold, ICBC Standard Bank

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Threadgold says his style of engagement spreads beyond his working relationship with the firm’s senior executives and onto the individuals in the IT department. He recommends other CIOs take a similarly open approach.

“I think you get the best out of people when they feel respected, rewarded and they know they’re making a difference,” he says.

“There are a lot of highly technical people in IT and they often tend to be introverted by nature. I’ve worked with lots of professionals who like to know the rules and regulations, and who don’t enjoy thinking outside the box.”

This was first published in January 2016

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