In Search of: Transformational CIOs

“We want a transformational CIO.” This is the request we’re getting from clients more and more. And “transformational” is their word; it’s how they’re describing what they need, so it got me thinking about this trending CIO request. Here’s how I unpacked the “ask” to help companies further define their CIO need. 

  • What’s going on?
  • What are companies really asking for?
  • How does a company find a transformational CIO?

What’s going on?

Digital disruption.

Actually, it’s digital disruption in relation to legacy technologies.

New tech innovations are piling up faster than companies can absorb them. And the difficulty absorbing them is more from a technology integration perspective than a business integration perspective.

This frustrates business leaders.

They’re feeling left behind. They read about other companies, even competitors, taking advantage of new technologies, but feel held hostage themselves by their own outdated systems and architectures.

Companies that are taking advantage of new technologies are not asking for a transformational CIO when in search of a new IT leader. They experience transformation every day because their IT team is able to stay current with technology, and stay in sync with the business.

Most companies, however, aren’t this fortunate. They feel anxious while other firms and competitors seem to roll along with ease. 

What are companies really asking for in a “transformational CIO”?

They want someone who can enable faster adoption of new technologies, and, as a direct result, drive greater business competitiveness, productivity, and innovation.

On the fear side, they don’t want to be left behind and risk the resulting drop in competitiveness, market share, and revenue.

It’s like they’ve been in a pit stop for years; some even for a decade or two. They look up and watch as other drivers speed in, then zoom right back out in a matter of seconds. They see the efficiency of the other teams, the whirring of their electronic and hydraulic tools, everyone moving quickly and in sync toward the same goal.

And there they sit.

Around their own car, they hear the clinking of iron crowbars, the clicking of manual jacks, and rusty squeaks of lug nuts being loosened one at a time.

The want something more. A transformed IT organization. One that is:

  • Responsive
  • Agile
  • Open
  • Collaborative
  • Trusted
  • and Current: always current, always transforming itself

But many IT organizations today are strained and stretched. They support current systems and technologies (a convoluted mix of new, old, and ancient), and they’re regularly being asked to quickly integrate new ones.

It’s not that easy.

IT organizations aren’t given the luxury of pit stops anymore. They’re being asked to change the tires as the car speeds along the backstretch at 205 MPH.

This has forced into existence what is known as “hybrid IT.” Old + new systems trying somehow to peacefully co-exist (i.e. easily and efficiently work together).

Some technologies are forced into the integrated whole; most sit outside the core systems, and while helpful, they are isolated.  

Transformational CIOs are in demand because of the pace of digital disruption. C-suite executives are frustrated with the slow pace of adoption, and they want a fresh approach to technology leadership.

A recent study conducted by the Harvard Business Review identified the challenges of a hybrid IT approach, further substantiating the need for the much requested “transformational” CIO. 

How do you find a transformational CIO?

They key is to know what to look for.

Here are some guidelines to follow in searching for a transformational CIO.

  • Look for true leaders (who just happened to grow up in technology).
    Seek out true leaders—candidates who are people and business leaders first and foremost.  All the right things, including technology alignment, decisions and solutions, will flow from true leadership.
  • Resist the urge.
    Don’t list experience with your industry at the top of the candidate “must-have” list. It can be a tie-breaker for final candidates, but nothing more.
    And resist the urge to search for candidates who know a particular technology or software application. When you do these things, you eliminate a wide swath of leadership talent from your candidate pool, and significantly reduce your chances of finding a transformational CIO.
  • Look for change leaders.
    The right candidates have the ability to shift IT organizations from fire-fighting mode and an over-emphasis on tactical support, to one that delivers greater strategic and innovative results.
  • Care more about business acumen than technical acumen.
    As you interview candidates, be more interested in (and impressed by) those who answer your questions from a business perspective, versus those who answer from a technical perspective.
  • Look for candidates who enjoy developing people.
    Ask questions that uncover their ability to develop people. Ask for examples. Ask how they develop people, as well as how much time they invest in it.
    People development, and succession planning, are key to sustainable IT organizations that know how to transform every day, even through leadership changes.
  • Seek out candidates who have experience creating and executing technology roadmaps.
    This will give you insights into their ability to envision a different—and improved—future for customers, partners, and employees.
    The core skills and experience required here are visioning, strategic planning, strategic execution, and ongoing assessment and adjustment to the roadmaps.
  • Understand how candidates make technology decisions.
    The only real answer is, “It depends on the needs and priorities of the business,” and understanding those needs and priorities comes through continual communication, education and collaboration.

    And the needs of the business are changing more and more rapidly, which means you want a CIO who can build a responsive and agile IT organization, prompting the building of a responsive and agile enterprise architecture upon which your business runs.

The right transformational CIO for your organization will put you in the driver’s seat of a car able to have its tires changed at 205MPH on the backstretch.

No pit stops required!

 John Hughes is a 35-year veteran of IT. As founder and managing partner of Gnu Talent, John, and business partner Brian Donaldson, are solely focused on guiding industry-leading companies in their successful search for influential IT leaders. John and Brian have sat in these seats themselves, are respected industry-wide, and have deep IT connections, making Gnu Talent a powerful, knowledgeable resource for IT leader placements.  John is also  author of the book,    Haunting the CEO  , a leadership fable used by universities in MIS and MBA curriculum, and by C-suite business leaders as a go-to guide for how to do IT right.

John Hughes is a 35-year veteran of IT. As founder and managing partner of Gnu Talent, John, and business partner Brian Donaldson, are solely focused on guiding industry-leading companies in their successful search for influential IT leaders. John and Brian have sat in these seats themselves, are respected industry-wide, and have deep IT connections, making Gnu Talent a powerful, knowledgeable resource for IT leader placements.  John is also author of the book, Haunting the CEO, a leadership fable used by universities in MIS and MBA curriculum, and by C-suite business leaders as a go-to guide for how to do IT right.