CIOs must get out and spend time with the consumer and avoid getting stuck in a back-office black hole

CIOs must get out and spend time with the consumer and avoid getting stuck in a back-office black holePhoto: Shutterstock

It’s tough to take a place at the executive top table, so knowing which features will make you stand out from your peers as an IT leader is essential. Mark Samuels reports.

What makes a great CIO? And how can such leaders encourage the best perception of IT across the business, as well as foster the right type of behaviour among the technology team? spoke to five IT leaders with five different perspectives.

1. Put commercial issues first and IT second

Success is not defined by how you interact with the business but how you become part of it, according to Steve Jeffree, operations director and group CIO at the Law Society.

“The future for the CIO who acts in a standalone manner is very limited,” he says, referring to his own additional annexation of the operations director role at the Law Society in March 2009.

Not that he believes all peers take a similarly business-focused view, however. “There’s a lot of debate about how we, as CIOs, should understand the business and there is a sense that IT, the leadership role, should be set apart from other executive roles. It’s all very defensive. I can influence the organisation much more as an operations director than I ever could as a CIO,” he says.

For other CIOs looking to get closer to the business, Jeffree has clear advice: “Be brave and be able to demonstrate that you can participate in business decision-making. Understand your executive colleagues, their functions and concentrate on showing that you have a commercial focus first and an IT focus second,” he says.

2. Spend time with the consumer

Mark Settle, CIO at BMC Software, says a successful CIO has to have the right relationships with colleagues in order to engage with the business as it grows.

“Every organisation is different in terms of personalities and the executive team, and the mix between the demand for innovation and the requirements for survival. The CIO has to be pretty flexible,” says Settle, who also recognises that effective business partnerships are not just built on an understanding of the requirements of senior peers.

Settle believes a lot of IT organisations get trapped in a…


Good CIOs must be able to understand the market

Good CIOs myst be able to understand the marketPhoto: Shutterstock

…back-office black hole, where technology is attached to operations, human resources and finance rather than having a direct relationship with the customer. Individuals in such a relationship at the front end are sheltered from IT functions, such as support and services. A successful CIO will break this stranglehold.

“My position has taught me that CIOs should get demand signals from people who consume services. CIOs must get out and spend time with the consumer. That type of direct engagement will show you how IT can really deliver value for the business. Break out of the vicious circle and spend time with the front office.”

3. Always make space for innovation

easyJet CIO Trevor Didcock believes all organisations need a strong executive who is responsible for making tough IT decisions. He refers to the growing importance of the cloud, suggesting the CIO can tell the difference between provider puff and business benefits.

“There are a lot of charlatans out there,” says Didcock. “You need an expert who understands the market and who can see the pitfalls. Who’s going to get the right contract if it’s not the CIO? The business needs someone to take the lead.”

And if the right person is in charge, the business can start to think creatively. Just because the cloud is complex, the executive team should not be put off experimenting with on-demand computing. Good CIOs provide the opportunity for the business to take advantage of innovative IT.

“Let your people have space to try things,” says Didcock. “Let people develop thinking that’s off the wall – we try to do that at easyJet. We have tech-savvy people and it’s important to let them play. We plan to let our people have more of a lead and we can do that through the early stages of transformation projects.”

4. Concentrate on people and communication

Mark Leonard, executive vice president at telecoms company Colt, says debates on the key characteristics of a successful IT leader have raged for a long time: the past few years have been dominated by the importance of business skills, while previously there was a period when technologists were viewed as worthy CIOs because they’d done their coding apprenticeship.

You actually need both skills, says Leonard. A good CIO will exhibit…


…strong commercial acumen, while being able to state clearly how technology helps push the transformation of the business. But even that mix is probably not enough for the future CIO.

“IT leaders need an intense focus on emerging technology and an equally strong focus on people. CIOs need to think about innovation and communication, and to concentrate on how technology can be shaped to give the business an advantage.”

“You can iterate but, when it comes to innovation, there’s still a key time between implementation and introduction. That focus relies on communication. About 98 per cent of being a good CIO is about focusing on people.”

5. Empower your team IT director Dan West says a successful CIO needs to get the basics right, where they build credibility and then deliver technology. From that platform, technology leaders can put a vision in place and make sure they have the right leadership strategy for the business.

“You need to understand business dynamics and have a resilient character. You’ll have to take the knocks. You also need to relate to the key business challenges of other executives in the organisation. You need to have a strong vision of where IT wants to go and how you’ll create improvements for the business,” says West.

The pace of business change continues to increase and a good CIO simply cannot do everything, according to West: “Empower people – your success as a CIO is all about the people who run technology for the business,” he says.

“That empowerment relies on good communication. I have trusted people at Asos who I know will make the right, detailed decisions. You can’t be a technologist to run IT. You need to be able to see value for the business. IT stewardship is all about results through leadership.”