Digital Transformation and IT Leadership, Be the Change

By Mark Thiele, CIO and CSO, Apcera & Chairman, IDCA Technical Committee

Mark Thiele, CIO and CSO, Apcera & Chairman, IDCA Technical CommitteeMark Thiele, CIO and CSO, Apcera & Chairman, IDCA Technical Committee

If there was ever a time for strong leadership across all lines of business, especially the IT function, now is that time. Many futurists suggest that we’re likely to see more change in the next 10 years than we saw in the previous 300.

"Digital transformation is the best opportunity for IT to take the leadership position in the effort to create a lasting and successful business that most of us will ever see in our careers"

As most companies begin pursuing a digital transformation strategy, the entire business will need to take on a DevOps or Cloud operating model. In other words, the business, which includes IT, should be able to absorb, add, and refresh technology efficiently and in near real time. Making IT into an agile Cloud or DevOps organization is one thing, helping enable that same way of operating across all lines of business is entirely another. IT cannot do transformation alone. Creating solutions that provide real-time information is only helpful if the broader organization is designed to leverage that information in real-time. This required change will take more leadership skill with humans than in selecting and implementing new technology solutions.

Times of Great Change require Great Leadership

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Niccolo Machiavelli

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

I’ve never been a perfect leader, but I’ve always believed that being a good leader was the best way to create sustainable and highly successful teams. I’ve also always believed, even before I could effectively articulate it that being a bad leader did more to hurt performance of a team than any one individual team member or accidental team dynamic.

Success is measured in many ways and certainly revenue or stock value is one way but sustainably keeping a company and its culture healthy through massive change requires strong leadership, not something driven through fear, obfuscation or intimidation.

Today’s business climate, yes that also means IT, is such that maintaining advantage is a daily struggle. The speed of change associated with business strategies like becoming a platform or going through digital transformation means that today more than at any time in the past, companies need to use the resources they have with agility and a very high level of effectiveness. Having the wrong leader is analogous to continuously painting over a heavily rusted car. You can still use the car and keep painting it, but it will never be pretty and will always take more daily overhead than one that was fixed and dealt with properly to begin with.

CIO Exhibits CEO Qualities

When IT is treated as the plumbing and your daily concern as a business is just whether ERP or email is running, the quality of IT leadership can be lacking without being readily apparent. If we assume that digital transformation is the business and IT needs to be a driving force for transformation success, then what does the company need from IT leadership? The CIO needs to exhibit the qualities of an excellent CEO as much as s/he needs to be a decent technology leader.

In simple terms, being a CIO with CEO like qualities means that at a minimum you do the following; carry a vision for the organization, you effectively keep IT strategy aligned with that vision, and you can show how it directly impacts business outcomes. It means that you are kissing babies and making friends, and that you’re the best sales person and marketer for the IT function. It also means that the buck stops with you.

Creating and maintaining a sustainable path?

It is a function of every good leader to build sustainability into their strategies. I’m not talking being tree hugger (although I am one), I’m talking about being able to sustain your culture, agility, and staffing. Another reason strong leadership is needed during times of great change is that there is terrific stress on the people. Limiting the impact of the stress on your team and even the company is a huge opportunity. If you can limit the stress you’re likely to have fewer turnovers, better productivity, and therefore a better ability to sustain your culture. One of the simplest things a leader can do is talk to their people. I’m personally a huge fan of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who taught “MBWA” (Management By Walking Around). MBWA is literally the easiest thing a leader can do and yet it’s so often overlooked or abandoned when times are tough. If the team falls apart, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked on that board presentation or how far you pushed a partner, it will all be for naught. Many of us have the bad habit of thinking that knowing your team is nice and yet it’s actually everything. When the going gets tough, double down on the human aspect of your job, don’t lock yourself in your office.

Transformation is here, today, tomorrow and forever

We can choose to embrace the need to reframe our strategy in support of creating a sustainable organization that can accept the challenge of becoming a platform or we can choose to lose. There is unlikely to be much middle ground for the vast majority of businesses. Digital transformation is the best opportunity for IT to take the leadership position in the effort to create a lasting and successful business that most of us will ever see in our careers.

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