CIO Development

Blog CIOs and the True Meaning of Transformation

These views are summarised from a conversation with top CIO Head hunter Cathy Holley of Boyden Search.

The Business Vision

The first question we ask when meeting boards to discuss their need to hire a CIO/CTO, is on the need for change in the technology function and what it delivers. Are we looking for evolution or revolution? This is a clear and critical question, requiring a considered and accurate answer. No organisation thrives in constant chaos so the option for more gradual change is a real one. But clients are often afraid to appear complacent or lacking ambition, and they do not want more of the same.

The majority of organisations we speak to range from fairly to extremely disappointed with their technology functions and so are crying out for “transformation”. And once the “T” word has been spoken there is an assumption that no more needs to be said and that we should now understand the brief fully, be able to hit the streets and find the perfect CIO.

The CIO’s Perspective

Fast forward three weeks, we are starting to meet benchmark candidates, or perhaps we are meeting a CIO who has requested a general meeting with us to explore career opportunities. This time our first question is always around their aspirations: “what would the perfect role look like for you?” The answer is almost always identical. There is a short pause, as if contemplating the question for the first time, and then… “I am really looking for a role in a company that wants to transform technology.”

CIOs are usually harshly dismissive of their predecessors, and genuinely believe that they are one of only a tiny pool of change agents. The average CIO would be shocked if she/he heard the descriptions we hear of the technology function they have left behind. Thankfully, the successor CIO has rescued the car crash, lifted and inspired the downtrodden team and got it into much better shape now. When we ask for details of this “transformation” answers range from the sublime to the ridiculous. So how much and what type of change would a CIO have to have delivered to be described as a genuinely transformational CIO?

Flavours of Transformation

There are many “flavours” of transformation; all vital on the journey to technology excellence and inspirational leadership but, nonetheless, very different. Every CIO story is unique in terms of their deliverables, specific to one organisation at a single point in time, at a single level of maturity and weathering specific external and internal forces. But we have found that the nature of the technology transformation required can usually be described in three broad bands:

“It’s broken, please fix it.”

For some of our clients, it would be fair to say that their technology function is “broken,” often indicated by low calibre teams disconnected from business leaders and delivering poorly defined projects with unmeasurable outcomes, late and over budget. Core systems may be unreliable, preventing business from functioning normally.

A good example would be one of our retail clients who regularly turned customers away from high-value transactions because the relevant store systems were down. Had their IT systems been strong enough, they would probably have been able to tell me how much business was lost due to the downtime but, sadly, no such data was collected or analysed.  Did this firm need technology transformation? Certainly. They needed somebody to come in and fix the basics. Once this was done it most certainly felt transformational to them.

“Unfit for purpose.”

This description applies to very many of our clients who are dissatisfied with what technology is delivering for them, but would reluctantly agree that their technology is not actually “broken”. Diagnosing what type of CIO would be right for these organisations is possibly the most challenging task since such a broad range of clients fall into this category. Issues revolve around inability to extract value from significant investments in technology; a disconnection between project deliverables and very dynamic business needs; a general sense that the CIO is neither a peer nor trusted adviser to the board and technology teams suffering low morale and lack of direction due to weak leadership.

There is no question that these organisations are looking to transform in terms of IT organisational structure, quality of talent and ability to create a compelling technology strategy to deliver business goals. They may now be ready to collect, analyse and even sell their data to other firms seeking levels of customer insight previously unthinkable. They want to know their customers inside out.

“Nirvana, we want to be like Google.”

Finally, what of those organisations who have addressed these issues and already have good technology, good people and a strong track record of delivering and absorbing change? What if they still have an appetite for world-class technology which will deliver new business models and a unique edge that will take their sector by storm?  What can we offer them?  Do they still require transformation? Absolutely. To create an Amazon, Uber or Airbnb requires an outstanding technology leader and talented team wanting to transform the very essence of what the retail/transport/hospitality industry is all about. They want to transform the customer mindset and create a new level of expectation so that the customer no longer regards anyone else in the sector as a viable option. The unique, compelling and unreplicatable proposition – all fired by technology.

The Four Stages

So, back to our “transformational” CIO. I firmly believe the reason for the fast turnover of so many CIOs is rooted in the misunderstanding of the breadth of what the word transformation spans. Clearly, the CIO that likes to fix broken infrastructure (step one) and implement ERP (step two) is not the same person who will thrive in an organisation where they seek sophisticated data analytics (step three). And this person is probably not the mind-blowing strategic thinker that will persuade the board to leap out of their comfort zone and create a completely new concept or product (step four). Yet all of these CIO “types” can be and consider themselves to be transformational.

The lack of differentiation between these very distinct groups has led many organisations to put the wrong person in the wrong job. It is dangerous to put an over-qualified, strategic thinking driver of change into an organisation which is clearly not ready or lacks appetite for such a journey. It is equally dangerous to hire a CIO only capable of upgrading IT, if what you were hoping to achieve was a new business model enabled by technology.

The Cycle of Change

Whatever type of CIO your organisation needs today, if they are genuine change leaders, they will probably want to move on after 3-4 years (unless you are planning to offer them a business unit to run). This may feel like the end of the world if they have delivered great things but it probably means you are ready for the next iteration of change and a fresh pair of eyes. This also provides an opportunity to reassess the business change agenda and ensure you have the right man or woman for the job.

For CIOs, I also believe a good dose of honesty and self-awareness is needed. Of course, it is possible to move between the categories but you need to start by understanding where you fit in today. Taking on a role which is too much of a stretch is almost certain to result in failure which can be disastrous for careers and confidence. Before deciding you have delivered as much change as your organisation needs reflect on whether you have merely fixed the basics or whether this organisation has genuinely reached the pinnacle of what it can be and is fit for the future.

The overuse of the word transformation when describing fairly basic change has done us no favours. Sadly there is no going back now, and it is hard to imagine any role specification avoiding the term. However, a little more sophistication in defining what is actually required will help organisations, CIOs and head-hunters to make better choices. Perhaps we will even manage to lengthen the tenure of CIOs and improve the reputation of this critical function.

Cathy Holley, Partner, Boyden Search