Can executive coaching improve your standing in the boardroom?

The CIO is under threat. Tech savvy business managers are spending more on IT than on the IT department. How can a CIO stay relevant?

The position of CIO is under threat. Tech savvy business managers are buying cloud services like Salesforce.com.

Research shows marketing spends more on IT than on the IT department. How can a CIO stay relevant?

According to Paolo Cavosi and Michel Savoie of Deloitte, relatively few CIOs have so far managed to reinvent themselves sufficiently to actually become a strategic business leader.

It is something Jon Longstaff was aware of when he stepped into a newly created head of IT role at Siemens SmartGrid two and a half years ago.

Longstaff decided to take an executive coaching programme to enable him to fulfil the requirements of the business.

Business transformation

Executive coaching is often used when an organisation is making large, transformational changes, where the executive team needs to keep the business running, while managing the change process. The coaching allows managers to take time out from running the business, to rethink the strategy, outside day-to-day work pressures.

Longstaff is head of UK programme delivery at Siemens metering, communications and services. He is deeply involved in the transition from traditional to smart metering, which has involved working with the major utilities, the government and other industry players. He is also a leading member of the Siemens team dedicated to developing a secure SmartGrid for energy.

The IT role required a complete rethink about IT, from internal-facing to dealing with customers for the UK’s SmartGrid.

Thinking like the business

Even though he had previous experience of being client facing, when he worked as a consultant at  IBM Global Services, Siemens was a very different prospect. “For my whole career until then I was always with other people. But in my new role I was the only IT person at the table,” he explains.

How do you engage with departments like marketing, human resources, finance when you have never done it before.

Jon Longstaff, head of UK programme delivery at Siemens metering, communications and services.

He says: “How do you engage with departments like marketing, human resources, finance when you have never done it before.”

To help him boost his confidence, Longstaff took one-on-one mentoring with executive coaching company, ASK. He took six sessions with four running in the first six months and two in the last six months.

The coaching covered his job role, the business strategy and what the strategy meant for the IT team at Siemens. It also covered interpersonal techniques, bid writing, turning IT from internally focused to customer-facing and how to manoeuvre to keep the door open between business and IT.

Through the coaching Longstaff examined the make up of the IT  team, in terms of the personalities, the trusted lieutenants and the sorts of people that would be needed to transform the IT function to a customer-facing organisation.

He says: “I used ASK as a trusted advisor. It is not easy to say you are not very confident. So it is helpful to have someone there as a trust coach, where you talk through ideas. The skills of the coach is in understanding business, but not necessarily the business of Siemens.

Ambiguity is your friend

According to Chris Rogers,  managing consultant at ASK Europe, one of the key aspects of management an IT person needs to make in order to move to a senior management role is to appreciate how to present ideas. IT tends to deal in hard facts and metrics, but the situation in management is very different. 

“You need to move to more ambiguous relationships that can be tied together to build coherent understanding,” he explains. “The whole executive team is in the same position.”

Career preparation

Longstaff began his career in retail working for Boots as a mainframe software developer, before progressing to become an IT architect, where he was part of the team which relaunched Boots.com at the height of the dotcom boom. He says his work at IBM Global Service probably helped him secure the head of IT position at Siemens. However, the new role posed many challenges compared with his previous IT experience.

He says a lot of IT directors deal with hardware and software where the data is quite clear. 

“You can predict it. But at board level, there’s a lot less data, especially when you deal with organisational performance.”

Networking

One of the challenges Longstaff had to overcome was that there was no predefined path that he could use as a guide to transform the business to smart metering.

“A coach’s role is to help IT directors understand the map of this landscape so that they can find the best navigable pathway for themselves and their function."

Harry Gooding, head of client engagement, Mortimer Spinks, a technology recruitment specialist, says a lot of CIOs also reach out to their social network community, for advice. “It is very much based on relationships, who you know in person rather than through a LinkedIn group.”

He said there are now two generations of CIOs – those who have evolved their careers from running back-office systems and those where the CIO role is directly relevant to the business. In the case of the latter, he says no one knows the best way to do things at the moment.

Executive coaching may help CIOs where IT has become absolutely core to the business.

For Longstaff, the coaching was not strictly about learning. 

Its main role was to reinforce his own ideas and concepts and the assurance that he was not alone. Having a network of CIOs and other experts outside the organisation can be an asset, especially as large transformational projects tend to be swathed in organisational politics.

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