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Six tips for letting go as a CIO

IT leaders share their tips on how to get the most out of internal staff and external partners

Great CIOs spend less time in the technology department and more time engaging with the rest of the business. 

But that transition can prove a tricky challenge for IT directors, who must ensure they have a ready stream of talented deputies to manage day-to-day operational concerns. 

The bad news, according to Gartner, is that lack of in-house talent is preventing CIOs from achieving their objectives. The analyst’s research suggests that 22% of IT leaders believe the continuing skills gap is the key barrier to success. 

So in trying to develop a more engaged position themselves, how can CIOs make best use of internal staff, and what role can supplier partners play in the delivery of services to the business?

We speak to the experts and provide best practice tips for IT leaders who are looking to let go of operational IT and making what they bring to the business more strategic. 

1. Look for self-starters who take the lead 

Doug May, regional IS manager at manufacturing specialist Messier-Dowty, likes to ensure his team has a clear idea of their roles and responsibilities. He has a big whiteboard in his office, which he uses to note priority projects, individual management tasks and likely completion dates.

May and his team have weekly project meetings to ensure that aims and objectives are understood.

“It’s all about communicating requirements clearly,” says May. “That works for the project sponsors too. Sometimes you need to push back to the leadership team and let them know that you don’t have the resources to complete a project in time.”

Great information helps, he adds. Key performance indicators can prove which projects are priorities and which will need additional resources. When it comes to making the most of internal talent, May says the right kind of attitude among IT professionals is crucial. 

“I’ve always looked for self-starters,” he says. “I like people to take the lead because I need to get around the department and offer advice where it’s required. When it comes to my trusted lieutenants, I have four very capable team leaders. These people want to help make a difference to business performance through the use of great technology.” 

2. Let IT people work directly with the business

Jaeger CIO Cathy McCabe ensures there is a close relationship between the company’s IT staff and business functions. She has established roadmap meetings, where members of the technology team meet managers from across the company.

The meetings provide an opportunity for her trusted colleagues in the IT team to find out the priorities of their business peers. The result is a pipeline of projects for individual departments. The generation of such a close and intertwined relationship is a valuable lesson that McCabe has garnered through experience.

“By working directly alongside the business, you can focus on initiatives that will really make a difference for users” 

Cathy McCabe, Jaeger

She points to lessons learnt from her previous IT leadership positions at Burberry. McCabe says the company’s focus on account management allowed her to recognise the potential business benefits of a pipeline of IT projects.

By working directly alongside the rest of the business, the technology department starts to focus on initiatives that will really make a difference for end-users. 

“Burberry was really at the forefront in terms of engagement,” she says. “When I joined in 2010, they were putting in place a layer of account managers between IT and the rest of the business. These were typically people who had specific skills within their own field. From my side, that expertise was around customer-facing technology and anything that touched client services. 

“We had other experts responsible for areas such as supply chain and product, for example – but we worked together as a team and sat within the business to bring their requirements back to the IT team, who delivered solutions to business challenges.”

3. Focus internal talent on core projects 

First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins says the concentration of IT leaders can flex and flux as the business matures. “When you’re a smaller company, you tend to grow by having a higher degree of focus and control,” he says. 

“One of the hardest lessons to learn is to recruit good people and to give them the space to operate. That’s often the hardest thing for any manager going through a high-growth phase in their business, because you can’t scale unless you hire great people and they won’t stay with you unless you give them the scope to do interesting things.” 

“Recruit good people and give them the space to operate”

Bill Wilkins, First Utility

One coping strategy is to call on the assistance of external experts. “If you believe there’s a fixed amount that you can do as a CIO or as an IT team, you need to think very carefully about where you focus your attention,” he says. 

Decisions on partnering, Wilkins says, should be based on an awareness of whether the project is central to the core aims of the business. “You need to consider if the platform or service you want to create or buy is going to create a differentiation in terms of your competitive advantage,” he says. 

“If the proposed technology is not core, and other people offer more expertise, then it makes sense to look outside your organisation. If you think the system is part of the business where you can really add value for the customer, then you need to own the asset. Owning the asset means you gain speed and agility, and can modify your approach as business demands dictate.”             

4. Choose external partners who fit your internal culture

Rob Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure and operations at ICBC Standard Bank, says his organisation dedicates a lot of time to market research and does call on the help of some of the world’s largest analyst firms. However, he is not fixated on the big IT suppliers, whose advice, he believes, can come with a significant price tag. 

Threadgold often looks to work with external suppliers that operate at a similar scale to his own business. Familiarity in approach, he says, helps to build stronger partnerships. Threadgold is also open to new ideas. 

“A specialist supplier will give you better access to their senior management team”

Rob Threadgold, ICBC Standard Bank

“I like to work with smaller companies and startups,” he says. “If you work with a more specialist supplier, there’s a good chance that you’ll represent a significant chunk of their revenue stream. You’ll get better access to their senior management team. When you need to talk to someone, you’ll get good air time.”

As an example, Threadgold cites a recently completed deal for his companyy’s IT service management programme. After speaking with big-name providers, he chose to work with Cherwell, a privately owned US software firm that is starting to expand its presence in the UK. “I liked the people who were in the room; I felt like I had their attention,” he says. 

5. Pick a partner who can argue their case 

Johan Kestens, managing director and CIO at ING Belgium, recognises that great providers will take the time and trouble to understand the pain points your business faces, but admits: “They all claim to do that.” 

He continues: “You can have a great negotiation period and then be surprised by what happens next. On a day-to-day basis, you need to be able to trust the people on the floor in your IT department and the people working on your behalf at the supplier. It’s about the creation of an effective partnership on both sides.”

Kestens says he does not have a checklist for good account management. He does, however, know after a couple of weeks of working with a supplier whether they will be as attentive as they claimed during the negotiation phase. 

“One good way of measuring vendor strengths is to focus on the quality of your arguments,” he says. “Every relationship has its ups and downs. What’s important is that the supplier can come to you and make good points during an argument. Success boils down to the quality of the partnership that both parties help to create.”

6. Measure supplier performance and give feedback

Geert Ensing, former CIO at ABN Amro, says a good contract with a supplier focuses on true business value rather than simple operational factors. To make the most of a supplier partnership, both parties must have a clear idea of what the third party should provide in relation to wider organisational objectives. 

“True relationships are based on trust and transparency, and include openness about what is likely to be the next big thing to happen,” Ensing says. “The best contract is stuck in a drawer and the CIO doesn’t need to refer to the small print on a monthly basis.” 

Reaching that point is far from straightforward. Ensing, however, believes CIOs who give as much feedback as possible to their suppliers will be in a much stronger position. “We’re now at a point where IT leaders and their C-suite peers need to share more of their business strategy with external parties.” 

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In many cases, traditional key performance indicators – such as service level targets – might not work. Software measurement, via testing and other specialist tools, needs to be an ongoing process. Such analysis should, Ensing says, be viewed as part of an attempt to push continual improvement inside and outside the IT department. 

“If you don’t measure performance, you can’t manage your suppliers. CIOs need to ensure the service they receive is being improved on an ongoing basis. You need to know, for example, whether a system adds value and where the benefits to the business are lagging.”

But he adds the following caveat: “Don’t overwhelm yourself with data. Pick on a few key areas that you think are essential to the business. Make sure any steps for future improvements are well understood and that the rest of the business – and its suppliers – understands how the costs of change will be absorbed.”

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