Are You a Transformational CIO?

“Today, the IT infrastructure is the backbone and accelerator of a company’s business transformation,” explained Jean Cholka, CEO of the global IT services provider Freeborders. “Thereby, having the right leader in the IT organization in place is critical to a company’s success.”

This transition in IT’s role was fueled by a number of converging storm fronts: a worldwide recession, an increasingly geography-diverse and mobile workforce, and a rise in customers opting for more virtual contact than physical face-time. Companies that operating mainly from a brick and mortar presence quickly saw it turn into a tomb while Web-based companies found themselves capsizing, bereft of actionable data in a surging sea-change.

It was and is IT that saves the day but it does so by changing its stripes while on the run.

“Anyone who wants to be a transformational leader for a major organization needs to understand that people can’t wait for transformational results,” said Will Marlow, director of Communications at LogiXML, a business intelligence and reporting software company. “They need results all along the way, and your legacy will be the result of the sum of all those results combined.”

Transformation on demand

True transformation occurs within both the IT organization and the business’ core systems. Resistance is futile since resistance in this economic climate leads to financial ruin. Oddly, it is the business side that endorses the mantra “transform or die.”

“The pushback was always greatest from IT and not the business,” said Stuart Zimmerman, principal of CCZ Consulting. While IT knows enough to see change as a threat to their jobs and their relationships within the organization, business users usually see changes as “refreshing opportunities to improve their jobs.”

It is a bizarre twist that the threat really works in reverse: “IT roles will change but not necessarily go away while jobs for users are often more susceptible to being automated away,” said Zimmerman.

The transformational CIO must recognize this irony and convert it into energy that can carry the company forward. Partly, that’s a matter of reassuring IT folks that they won’t work themselves out of a job (although such assurance may not be possible in the current economic climate). It is truthful, however, to inform IT staff that hiring and retention programs are on the upswing and both new jobs and promotions in old jobs swing on the success of completed projects.

It is no exaggeration to say that no one is hiring or promoting IT people without a recent list of successfully completed projects. That said, the transformational CIO must inspire and motivate on the one hand and shove with the other. “The key to IT transformation is to start with senior level company or divisional management and know just how far you can push,” said Zimmerman.

If this approach sounds familiar, that’s because “transformational leadership” has been around for decades. A 2004 analysis by Timothy Judge and Ronald Piccolo at the University of Florida and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that transformational leadership is nothing new. It tracks back to a similar style promoted in 1921. So, no, it isn’t that the leadership style is new, what’s new is CIOs have to do it … not just CEOs.

For example, in healthcare the CIO “needs to be a leader, innovator and strategic thinker,” said Mike Tucker, general manager PBM Products & Technology-Payer Solutions at IMS Health. This used to be just the CEO’s job description.

He says the scale of healthcare reform is incredibly broad and the CIO needs to be constantly learning about regulatory and industry trends; looking for opportunities to advance critical areas of change. “In the past, the healthcare CIO has been a cost and project manager. The new healthcare CIO needs to be a thought leader as well as an operations expert.”

These days, CIOs are not encouraged to be transformational leaders, they are expected to be. Further, transformation is expected to be delivered immediately and on-demand.

Old, new and ‘tween

The transformational CIO has read the writing on the wall (in this case, outsourcing docs). He knows that IT jobs have fled overseas and he knows that his team knows this, as well. Therefore, the motivation to put the business’ welfare over that of the IT department’s is mostly absent. Yet, the CIO cannot muster change unless he can first rally his troops. The best way to do that is to eradicate the fear first.

While few CIOs can unequivocally promise no layoffs, nearly all CIOs can ease uncertainty by clearly presenting the team’s actual circumstances and offering a means to successfully compete. Spell out to your teams that IT is increasingly being viewed as any other service provider to the business. This means they have to deliver end-user services (email, telecom etc.), business services (applications) and infrastructure (compute, storage, etc.) all the while being “price, quality and value comparable to external service providers” said Sunny Gupta, co-founder, president and CEO of Apptio.

The transformative CIO will have to manage their IT portfolio from a services perspective and measure on-going cost, value and quality of service. “Detailed, actionable metrics such as direct/indirect and fixed/variable will be favored over basic IT-specific measurements like utilization and performance. Only then will the CIO be able to bridge the chasm that currently exists between IT and their business partners.”

Once that chasm is bridged, the IT team and its CIO become invaluable to the business, not because of their technical knowledge, which can easily be replaced by outsourcers, but by their ability to form and hone the business’ competitive edge. This becomes the IT team’s formidable differentiator. The message to the IT team then is, “This is how you compete and win!”

The ABCs of transformational leadership

According to Bonnie McEwan, visiting lecturer in Management and Leadership, Milano The New School for Management and Policy in New York City, there are three key things a leader must focus on if they aspire to be truly transformational:

1. Always remember that the transformation is two-way : You will be changed along with your followers. Transformation is a process and its power lies in the exchange (and the changes) that take place between people.

2. Great leaders are also great followers : Transformational leaders know when to step back and let another take the lead. It is especially useful to embrace your follower role when you are seeking to develop the leadership abilities of others. Since leaders are at or near the top of the organizational hierarchy, it can be difficult to see what’s really happening on the ground, where the work of your organization takes place. Followers often see realities that leaders miss, so it’s important to allow your best followers to take the lead sometimes, and even encourage them to mentor you.

3. Be very clear about the transformation you seek: Know what it looks like, and describe it for your followers. This is more than just your vision. It’s a shared view of a transformed reality that you all strive for together. Talk about the transformed reality every day, as that’s what inspires people to move forward. Model that new reality in everything you say and do; make it tangible for your followers.

Indeed, bringing about transformation is a hands-on job. “The leader can’t be a faceless name behind emails but must interact with the team frequently and with the members of the organization IT is serving,” said Mike Honeycutt who has worked in IT for the University of North Carolina at Asheville for 28 years.

Yes, the transformational CIO must have a strong vision and be able to communicate it effectively to the team but that is the starting point not the end-point. The CIO must possess an equal mix of charisma, business acumen, people skills, motivational ability, conviction, and courage. His commitment to the organization and the team must be unwavering and his knowledge of things outside IT forever growing.

“It may be hard for some technology leaders to keep a business focus, but descending into the morass of IT minutiae severely limits the CIO’s sphere of influence,” said Jeffrey Breen, CEO of Cambridge Aviation Research and formerly CTO of the Yankee Group.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).

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