Why IT Executives Need to Be Business Leaders

The key requirement to being a successful CIO is to be a business leader “first and foremost” – although one with a specific responsibility for IT, says Professor Joe Peppard, Director of the IT Leadership Programme at Cranfield School of Management.

IT executives are seeing their roles evolve from technologists to drivers of innovation and business transformation. But numerous research studies show that many IT leaders struggle to make this transition successfully, often lacking the necessary leadership skills and strategic vision to drive the organisation forward with technology investments.

Developing business skills

At the very minimum, IT executives need to show an understanding of the core drivers of the business. But successful CIOs also possess the commercial acumen to assess and articulate where and how technology investments achieve business results.

A recent ComputerWorldUK article paints a bleak picture of how CIOs measure up. “Only 46% of C-suite executives say their CIOs understand the business and only 44% say their CIOs understand the technical risks involved in new ways of using IT.”

Crucially, a lack of confidence in the CIO’s grasp of business often means being sidelined in decision-making, making it difficult for them to align the IT investment portfolio.

Developing leadership skills

A survey carried out by Harvey Nash found that respondents reporting to IT executives listed the same desired competencies expected from other C-level leaders: a strong vision, trustworthiness, good communication and strategy skills, and the ability to represent the department well. Only 16% of respondents believed that having a strong technical background was the most important attribute.

The ability to communicate and develop strong, trusting relationships at every level of the company (and particularly with senior leaders) is essential not just for career progression, but also in influencing strategic vision and direction. As a C-level executive, a CIO must be able to explain technical or complex information in business terms, and to co-opt other leaders in a shared vision of how IT can be harnessed “beyond simply competitive necessity”. Above all, the ability to contribute to decisions across all business functions enhances an IT executive’s credibility as a strategic leader, rather than as a technically-focussed “service provider”.

Professor Peppard notes that the majority of executives on his IT Leadership Programme have a classic Myers Briggs ISTJ personality type. Generally speaking, ISTJ personalities have a flair for processing the “here and now” facts and details rather than dwelling on abstract, future scenarios, and adopt a practical approach to problem-solving. If you’re a typical ISTJ, you’re happier applying planned procedures and methodologies and your decision making will be made on the basis of logical, objective analysis.

While these traits may suit traditional IT roles, they’re very different from the more extrovert, born-leader, challenge-seeking ENTJ type who are more comfortable with ambiguous or complex situations. The training on the IT Leadership Programme develops the key leadership abilities that IT executives are typically less comfortable operating in, but which are crucial in order to be effective.

Align yourself with the right CEO and management team

The challenge in becoming a great business leader is partly down to other people’s misconceptions and stereotypes, says Joe Peppard, and how the CEO “sets the tone” makes all the difference. His research uncovered examples of where CIOs who were effective in one organisation moved to another where the environment was different, and where they consequently struggled.

A CIO alone cannot drive the IT agenda, he says. While the CIO can ensure that the technology works and is delivered efficiently, everything else required for the business to survive and grow will depend on an effective, shared partnership with other C-level executives. Many IT initiatives fail because of organisational or “people” reasons, he notes.

Other executives have a clear role to play. They need to be sufficiently IT-literate to understand the strategic potential of IT and how it impacts performance and generates value. Successful IT projects (where investments are fully optimised), are characterised by active involvement across the management levels impacted. The findings in the ComputerWorldUK article support this research. Companies which view the CIO as a strategic partner are much more likely to achieve better results. Rather than simply viewing IT as a way to cut costs or improve efficiency, harnessing its potential helps create value and new revenue sources