IT leader’s survival guide: 11 ways to thrive in the years ahead

IT leader’s survival guide: 11 ways to thrive in the years ahead

By Paul Heltzel Jun 8, 2022

Agility and resiliency have become organizational essentials in rapidly changing and challenging times. Here is how to establish an IT organization built for long-term success.

Tumultuous times redefine what constitutes success. The past few years in IT have exemplified this. Digital disruption, global pandemic, geopolitical crises, economic uncertainty — volatility has thrown into question time-honored beliefs about how best to lead IT.

Consider this moment as a call to reflect and reset — a chance to glean from your recent experiences what it will take to lead a successful IT organization over the next decade, one that will see technology increasingly at the center of every business, a vital catalyst for accelerating, and responding to, change.[ Learn from your peers: Check out our State of the CIO report on the challenges and concerns of CIOs today. | Find out the 7 skills of successful digital leaders and the secrets of highly innovative CIOs. ]

According to a future-looking report from IDC, to thrive in the years ahead, the key will be to make your organization more agile and resilient, in large part by empowering your teams through collaborative decision-making focused on business outcomes. 

We reached out to a range of IT leaders to find out what it will take to get you there. Here are their tips for making your IT organization more agile and resilient, and thus better equipped to navigate the years ahead, based on their hard-won experience.

Develop team trust

Wiley CIO and CISO Sean Mack says that, to thrive, IT leaders need to instill trust in their teams and foster a similar confidence across the organization. 

“Trust leads to far better collaboration, alignment, and outcomes,” Mack says. “If people need to go through multiple layers of approvals, they run the risk of building a very inefficient system. In contrast, teams that have gained organizational trust are empowered to act autonomously, which leads to more agility. An empowered, autonomous, team is absolutely essential in a work-from-anywhere environment where there is a heightened need to respond to rapidly changing conditions.”

Mark Schlesinger, senior technical fellow at Broadridge Financial Solutions, agrees that with the speed of change in technology, tech leaders need small, nearly independent teams to succeed.

“CIOs are under even more pressure now to deliver practical business benefits,” Schlesinger says. “With that as the backdrop, the need to restructure technology and product teams into efficient, effective, agile, and resilient squads is critically important. This ownership and structure allows the team to effectively deliver as well as self-govern their team members to ensure the objectives are accomplished and a quality solution is delivered.”

Be adaptable

Signs of inflation, labor market instability, and geopolitical strife are among the many reasons CIOs may be feeling some anxiety about the future, says Steve Shoemake, managing partner and global technology practice leader at consulting and staffing firm Vaco. Thriving amid uncertainty means staying flexible, he argues. 

“Budgets may need adjusting,” he says. “Some projects may be put on hold or canceled. Some hires may need to be postponed. The coming months are a leadership test for CIOs, and it’s a pass/fail grade.”

Keep calm and lead on

Amid the uncertainty, tech leaders need to be a steady hand at the wheel and a buttress against headwinds, Shoemake says. 

“There’s a lot of unknowns out there,” he says. “IT professionals in their organizations — not to mention their colleagues in the rest of the business — all read the same tea leaves. Be fair in your decisions. Be present with your staff. Be straight with them about what is happening. Do these things and your staff will fight for you no matter the headwinds.”

Prioritize top talent — and recognize what attracts the next generation

Attracting and keeping talent continues to be challenging for tech leaders. Schlesinger says IT leaders need to rethink how they keep top performers and find new technology stars.

“CIOs need to develop — or redevelop — their teams’ value proposition,” he says. “Some key components include well-being of team members, workplace flexibility, clear employee personal growth opportunities, establishing deeper connections with team members, and establishing and maintaining a shared vision for the team.”

CIOs are under pressure to boost employee productivity in a tight labor market, says Kelly Fleming, CIO at Cirrus Nexus. He says they’re responding with competitive work benefits and other ways to retain young staff in particular. 

“CIOs will be measured by their ability to attract and maintain talent without losing output by offering remote work flexibility, and by implementing the [diversity, equity, and inclusion] and sustainability initiatives increasingly sought by young IT professionals,” Fleming says. 

Share mistakes as well as successes

Tech leaders should create a culture that encourages honest sharing of experiences, says Darren Person, global CIO of The NPD Group, and allows teams to share their perspectives, including mistakes.

“We’ve created a weekly session where CIOs and CTOs personally meet with cross-functional groups to foster new relationships and build trust,” Person says. “Through brown-bag lunches and sprint demos, we encourage our teams to use mistakes as learning opportunities and to share those learnings with others to grow as a team.”

Aashish Chandarana, CIO of Productiv, encourages tech leaders to share the data behind decision-making as well.

“CIOs need to understand the data behind the success or failure of technology,” Chandarana says. “Demand transparency on everything — especially on metrics — and be transparent back. Driving alignment with not only your own team — but across your business and various stakeholders is table stakes.”

Provide tools tech teams and business users want to use

Your teams should have the same quality of tools your customers would expect, says Tam Ayers, field CTO for Digibee, which he says leads to better productivity and efficiency.

“The most successful CIOs will not settle for software products or tools that are good enough to get the job done, but rather focus on enabling the business for success with the best tools that employees actually enjoy using,” Ayers says. “Instead of spending effort on workarounds or improvements to a subpar solution, employees become more productive with the right tools. While this tactic may increase cost in the short term, it will ultimately drive business success in the long term by increasing employee satisfaction and retention. When IT teams are happy and productive, the path to digital transformation is a lot smoother.”

Focus on value as well as cost

These days tech leaders are expected to be profit centers rather than a standard expense line, Ayers says. But he warns that pressure to cut costs from CFOs and others to drive efficiency around operational expenses reduces the focus on value delivered.  

“Cost-benefit analysis is important to any procurement process, but the right value points must be tracked as a part of that analysis,” he says. “CIOs should never compromise today at the expense of tomorrow. Cutting costs in the short term will lead to greater costs in the long term, as the path to digital transformation will take more iterations and put greater stress on its employees.”

Listen to your team

Kelly Fleming, CIO at Cirrus Nexus, recognizes the demands of shareholders and customers can be overwhelming, but he argues that CIOs need to make time to hear their teams out.

“A great IT department’s success is always contingent on its employees’ ability to do their job well, and that boils down to their ability to collaborate with each other and communicate their needs to the company’s decision makers,” he says. “An IT department that disillusions its employees will lack the agility to meet changing business needs and will fail to be resilient in times of crisis.”

Embrace data, and share it

Lesley Salmon, global CIO of The Kellogg Co., says the multinational food manufacturer hosts internal summits to show colleagues how advanced data and analytics can help drive growth. 

She advises engaging across multiple departments to “realize the benefits of AI and machine learning, prioritize which data is most valuable — and how to turn insights into actions. When it comes to data and analytics, test, learn and recalibrate. Being a data-driven company is a continuous journey, not a destination,” she says.

Diversify your tech

Fleming warns against CIOs locking into one vendor’s suite of tools despite the ostensible benefits — or face trouble down the road. 

“CIOs spend a lot of time determining which vendors and products to license for their departments,” Fleming says. “It’s important to avoid becoming trapped in a single vendor’s ecosystem which limits your department’s flexibility and resilience to product shortcomings, outages, price fluctuations, and emerging digital security threats. To do that, CIOs must balance the temptation for achieving the simplicity of using fewer vendors with the benefits of hybrid, multi-vendor solutions.”

Avoid change for change’s sake

The need to stay competitive by adopting new technology is crucial, but don’t make your organization feel adrift amid competing timelines and demands, says Dena Campbell, senior vice president of systems and strategy at Vaco.

“The amount of agility needed in our ever-changing environments can easily feel like a frog in water on the stovetop,” Campbell says. “It can be a risk if we are just changing for the sake of change, and we take our eye off of the impact of each change on the whole. Develop and constantly amend the models for scaling technology.”

Empower your people

Empowering your managers means delegating some decision-making, after counseling them and encouraging them to try their ideas, Vaco’s Shoemake says. 

“The key is not to cut your staff out at the knees because they wanted to invest in a new hire that flopped, or they went down the path of a pilot and the business case that looked good initially turned into a total bust,” he says. “Make sure the lesson is learned, but you can’t foster a culture of empowerment if drama ensues after every failed idea. Organizations dominated by a fear of failure invariably force all decision-making upward. The result is run it up the flagpole instead of empowerment, rigidity instead of agility, and frailty instead of resilience.”

Wiley’s Mack says CIOs need to move away from a command-and-control mindset and instead hand authority to your teams.

“An empowered, autonomous, team is absolutely essential in a work-from-anywhere environment where there is a heightened need to respond to rapidly changing conditions,” Mack says. “Given how rapidly the workplace has evolved in the past two years, it’s clear there is no back to normal — there’s just the next normal, and then the one after that. There is tremendous opportunity in embracing the next change, but it’s up to CIOs to take advantage of it while building relationships across teams and keeping our focus on people.”

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