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Why the 40 years of Technology Leadership Evolution Was Critical for CIOs

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Anthony Maiello, CEO/CTO

Over the last 4 decades CIOs and CTOs have played an important role in the evolution of both technology and business success. Today, technology enables business because of great CIOs and CTOs over the last 40+ years. In fact, I would be so bold to state that many businesses would be “out of business” if this “4 decade evolution” didn’t take place like it did. And I'm sure the next 4 decades will have a similar story as this evolution continues to march on.

I started my career in the mid 1980’s when personal computers were becoming mainstream. Mainframes (and Microvaxes) continued to fill large data centers, and when we discussed “automation” it was all about streamlining simple tasks. The CIO role was the first formal technology leadership role to emerge in the 1980’s because it became necessary to manage groups of engineers that were being hired to develop complex monolithic software and systems. These Technology leaders almost all came through the technology ranks and typically did not engage with the business on a regular basis.

As I went through the 1990’s and the “dot-com” era, businesses engaged in enterprise software development - I started implementing large, and more integrated on-premise platforms. This is when I personally saw the CIO role start including operational elements in addition to managing engineering teams. The CIO didn’t yet have a consistent “seat at the table” with the other executives, but often needed by the business leaders due to an IT problem or question. This was very much a supply and demand relationship that continued for many years with technology leaders largely inwardly focused. This may seem like a mistake when you look at it through today’s lens, but truly it was an absolutely necessary approach as technology was new and complex - we needed technical leaders and experts to focus inward to ensure things were getting done during this era.

Recently, the world of business has evolved and become increasingly digital with the impeccable need to establish data-driven organizations enabling better decision making. Technology has become a vital component of businesses across almost all industries. CIOs and CTOs were being added to executive teams at a high rate and almost overnight were required to contribute to the business’s broader strategy and decision-making. But in many cases, CIOs and CTOs who rose from the technology ranks were not familiar with fundamental business concepts and processes, not to mention the business inner workings itself. Many struggled with truly comprehending business ramifications and effectively communicating their view to far less technical business leaders and executives. As we all know, digital transformation is not only about technical solutions ... it requires business-wide collaboration so technical articulation to business leaders was and is vital.

Technology Leaders Master Business Concepts and Align with Business Goals

In this new digital era, it’s been consistently stated that “IT must align to Business goals” for companies to be successful. But for many organizations these are just words they speak about in all-hands meetings and difficult to actually execute - and there are a few reasons for this - but one reason is ensuring CIOs and CTOs master certain business concepts to truly become contributing members of the executive team and the business. Other reasons are also on the business leadership side of things that we will not cover in this article but just as vital and important for success.

Of course, there are your basic leadership requirements that all good leaders need to master. Since CIOs and CTOs are now part of the executive team they need to master these as well. Here are just a couple of the many leadership needs.

Corporate Culture

How do employees think and act within the company? What are the company’s values? These are areas all leaders must master including CIOs/CTOs as getting IT projects developed and deployed won’t happen properly without understanding culture and what makes employees tick.

Understand People

How does each individual interact with others? I found this one particularly difficult for many technology leaders as it involves understanding emotional issues and problems that individuals may be going through. Technology leaders need to embrace and master this concept in order to establish high performance teams.

There are many more basic leadership needs such as engaging employees, providing the right incentives, and moral building. For now, you get the idea.

As important as basic leadership skills, CTOs and CIOs must master business concepts, understand their business, and articulate technology to c-level, boards and even sometimes external clients. Here are just a few of the many areas to master.

Hone Digital Mindsets Across the Company - Starts with You

Technology leaders often think about the technical skills they need in order to develop and deploy a digital project in this digital age. But this is more than understanding how to code in Python or command a robot. As the technology leader with a seat at the executive table, you must gain your “business credibility” - establish the right communication skills, knowledge and intuition to see the bigger picture, ask the important business related questions and to embrace constant change. You first must develop your own credible digital mindset and change your behavior to see the world in a new way before you can expect your team (or stakeholders) to follow you.

Communicate with Executives

We all know we can't get much done without stakeholder and team “buy-in” - this is especially true when it comes to technology as it's often misunderstood by business executives. To succeed in this new digital age, it’s critical the technology leader focus on developing their communication and articulation skills enabling executives to understand at least 25% of what's going on in IT from a technical perspective. This will give business leaders some insight into why technology is important, how it works, and be able to communicate this to the entire company and clients.

Establish Measurable Business Success Factors

In this fast changing digital world where new business models are being established on a regular basis, the technology leader must ensure they are measuring success with the right business focused metrics. Besides the normal inwardly focused technology metrics around team performance, output and technical workflows, it's important to monitor and articulate business related metrics ensuring their outcomes are realized and business leaders understand.

  • Existing state metrics : based on your existing “digitization” business model, digital business KPIs should evaluate the existing state related to sales, marketing operations, supply chain, goods, services and customer service.

  • New revenue streams (potential and development): if your business is changing and doing this right in the new “digital era”, you will explore new digital business models and their potential. This means KPIs must be established, monitored and articulated to clearly distinguish them from existing non-digital models.

Keep in mind this isn't just about establishing KPIs like in the old days. Technology leaders need to establish, monitor and articulate what these all mean to the business leaders and the company’s clients. C-level and board members need to know why these metrics are important to the organization and that means technology leaders must understand everything about the business itself in order to properly articulate KPI value - well beyond just being a technology guru.

There are many more business concepts that must be mastered by today’s technology leaders. As is true with business leaders, to be an effective technology leader in 2022, you must continue to be a technical guru, but also you must understand your business and fundamental business ideas. You must ensure you master your own business, general business concepts, and how to collaborate effectively with less technically inclined company leaders. So the phrase “align technology with business goals” can become more routine and real when technology leaders establish long lasting relationships with other executives and have a solid grasp on business as we progress through the age of digital transformation.

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