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To Be A Modern CIO Requires Business Core Competencies

by Andrea S. Ballinger, VP, COO & CIO, University of Illinois Alumni Association August-2016

Becoming a Chief Information Officer was never my professional goal and in fact, I felt I had dodged the bullet several times in my career by not accepting that title. Getting an education in business and finance and observing what motivated and empowered many of the CIOs in my industry, I saw a gap between what I believe the role to be–the strategic leader responsible for connecting administrative business needs with information solutions and the reality I saw. Over and over again, I observed my colleagues looking for the next “IT” solution that promised to make all of the difference, but the goal was not to help the administrative unit reach its strategic objectives nor increase efficiencies, effectiveness, or lower costs. In fact, the goal was never clear, nor definitive.

"CIO is the secret sauce that keeps an organization nimble, adaptable and relevant. How cool is that?"

Why would or should any CIO be seeking out new technologies without a real business problem to solve? Many CIOs view their jobs as service providers with their product being Technology. I likened that phenomenon to the Field of Dreams movie tag line… if you build it, they will come. Looking back at each of these interactions, I do not see a deliberate desire to keep the line of business owners out of the equation. In my estimation, these highly capable individuals do not have the business core competencies and perhaps, do not see a distinction between the role of a CIO and a CTO. In my experience, the discerning factor and major differentiator is a lack of tactical understanding and appreciation for what material challenges a functional owner, or line of business owner, might be facing when implementing their business processes. This is precisely the role the CIO can help fill—to be a catalyst for change and adaptability. To drive a technology team that conceptualizes, builds, and disseminates information solutions that directly impact changes in organizational and industry path, culture, people and ultimately on outcomes. With that definition, the CIO is the secret sauce that keeps an organization nimble, adaptable and relevant. How cool is that? The major disconnect between what I saw as the role of CIOs and this vision I have in my mind create the basis for my aversion for the title and fuels my passion to try to pay it forward to the next generation of potential CIOs.

The solution to fill this gap is not simple. However, I strongly believe our success as CIOs in the very near future will depend not only on our ability to focus more on the “I” in our titles (mastering the balance between gathering data/making sense of the information/generating real insights, becoming better at information management, developing expertise in data governance among others), but moreover, making sure we are setting the stage for the future wave of leaders to possess business core competencies.

Every CIO has similar technical skills albeit with different levels of expertise depending on their path towards the C-level. However, in my experience, CIO’s core competencies-the behaviors exhibited when using these skills are vastly diverse  and as I outlined above, I suggest that the next generation of CIOs should have some business core competencies under their belts.

I leave you with the top three compe­tencies that I see for future CIOs. There are many different examples and titles for some of these competencies but I will leave you with my favorite.

1. Change Agent. It is not enough to be politically astute and recognize the myriad land mines in existence when you are trying to push an IT agenda inside of an organization. It is something very different to be a CIO with the innate ability to be a change agent, the one leader always thinking about how the organization can stay ahead of itself. The one who recognizes the organization dynamic in play, and in light of the ongoing situational analysis, is able to help the organization transform itself without always relying on major capital investments. Remember the 90s and early 2000s when all we needed to do was find the perfect ERP system to implement and all would be perfect with our world? Those days are gone.

2. Impact Oriented Leader. It is not enough to be results oriented. Every CIO thinks about getting results. Impact orientation goes beyond the expected metric of “deployment on time and on budget” to measurable impact on business process. Has the new informational solution materially improved the business speed, efficiency and or effectiveness? Has the organization been able to identify new opportunities that before the new solution, it could not have? Has the new solution provided the opportunity to get ahead of the competition?

3. Exceptional Talent Manager. Every CIO is able to inspire team members, encourage them, and provide constructive criticism to help improve performance. A CIO with talent management skills behaves a little more like a talent agent with the goal of advancing each individual team member’s career goals. While on the team, these team members are inspired to make a mark, however short termed. They look for creative solutions, treat innovation as a sport, and are focused on the challenge. When that alignment of goals happens, even if the talent stays for two to three years, the organization wins.