At a recent meeting, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Curt Carver, CIO at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, speak on the priorities (and challenges) for today’s CIOs. Themes from his talk were familiar, but important: CIOs must help the business grow, gain competitive advantage, and remain secure. He also emphasized many challenges: IT skill set, modernizing IT while keeping the lights on, and maintaining security and compliance.
But his key message was this: CIOs must be transparent, engaged with their community, and available.
Theresa Payton, Chief Advisor and CEO of Fortalice Solutions and former White House CIO, built on these themes at another recent conference I attended. While her “gig” is security, she focuses heavily on openness and “humanness” of both security technology and culture, telling IT leaders they must listen to their users and employees.
I reflected on all this in light of the many CIO-related conversations I’ve had over the years—with both very traditional and future-thinking leaders—and I’ve developed six key principles for today’s successful “transparent” CIOs.
Six principles for successful digital-era CIOs
1. Get out of the IT trenches: Make sure you’re meeting with the line of business (including marketing and sales) and really partnering with the business. As one security expert recent asked a room full of CIOs, “When was the last time you went on a walkabout and asked employees what they need?” What a concept! More importantly, engage with your user community. Meet with the users and customers of the solutions you are delivering. If you’re part of a university, then talk to staff, professors, and students.
2. Walk around the IT trenches: Don’t become so focused on managing “up” to the CEO that you forget to be visible to your IT teams. Take time to listen and walk around. Recognize the developers and Ops guys taking risks and coming up with new ideas. Empower them to solve tough problems and make decisions when they see something is wrong. (How many times has someone in IT seen the warning signs of a breach, but didn’t feel the authority to actually say or do something?) Encourage honesty and openness in your team meetings; create a trusting environment in which people can speak the truth. This may sound obvious, but many IT teams I know are afraid to tell their CIO how bad things really are.
3. Share best practices with peers and the world: The best CIOs don’t believe their success is some sort of proprietary IP, something to keep to themselves. If they have figured out better security policies, they share them not just with their teams but with their peers and the world. This is why I love seeing CIOs out speaking at conferences, where they openly share tough lessons and successes with others. For the most part, we are all trying to figure out the same challenges. Someone I know who does this very well is Jonathan Feldman. By day, Jonathan is CIO for the City of Nashville. But Jonathan is also an active speaker, blogger, and social media participant. He is not only a great CIO, but an amazing evangelist for technology and the city of Nashville.
4.Use open source intelligence and tools to drive innovation: As CIOs know all too well, this digital era has brought only more intense cybersecurity threats and crime. According to security consulting firm Fortalice, someone discovers a new malways deviant every 90 seconds, and, on average, it takes organizations 205 days to discover breaches. Open source tools, especially those that provide predictive and real-time intelligence or analytics, can help. Of course, you need to actually pay attention and do something with that information.
5. Innovate and Fail fast: This new breed of CIOs is not afraid of failing. They want to see their teams pushing the limits and innovating and trying new things. That automatically will end up with some failures. So the key is failing fast, then figuring out what went wrong and incrementally improving. That’s agile, baby! As I heard at a recent Gartner conference, “Cyber crime is innovating and using agile development—so why can’t we?” Good question.
6. Share your plans: Dr. Carver has his strategic plan online for the world to see. I love this (even if it is dated 2011-2013, the intentions are right!). His advice to vendors: Don’t even attempt to talk to me if you haven’t read my plan and taken time to figure out how you are relevant or can help. Just think how much time everyone would save if your suppliers and vendors knew what your plans and priorities were, and you partnered with them to address your key goals. And, as Dr. Carver noted, if the vendor doesn’t take time to read them, then you quickly narrow down your vendor list.
Strong communication skills compliment all these principles. It’s hard to be transparent and open if you aren’t communicating well. As Forbes contributor Peter High says in his report of the top 20 most social CIOs of 2015, it (communication) is not a historical strength of CIOs but is now a key differentiator.
High noted that CIOs “must be supreme networkers, collaborating with their colleagues in IT, their colleagues outside of it, establishing partnerships with vendors that will generate new value for the enterprise, and increasingly engaging customers, who are much more tech savvy today no matter the industry.”
By being “out there,” CIOs enhance their recruiting abilities. In this highly-competitive IT market, getting talented admins, devs, ops managers, and analysts is challenging (to say the least), as you’re competing with the Googles and Amazons of the world. But when your team sees you “out there” promoting the work they are doing, and sees you in the halls and cubes, they will feel more involved and appreciated, have higher job satisfaction, and refer others to your organization.
Much research has shown that millennials care much more about job satisfaction and “feeling good” about where they work than the level of pay they receive, so CIOs (and every executive) can use transparency, and especially social media, to attract the next generation of IT workers.
As we all evaluate what must evolve in this digital era, these principles are good places to start—not only for CIOs, but all leaders wanting to embrace a more open organization.