8 emerging leadership traits for CIOs in 2022

During one of my recent conversations, a former CIO of a multinational manufacturing company admitted that he was never aware during his entire career that many of his subordinates and team members were scared to approach him for sharing new ideas or even initiating a candid discussion. After his superannuation, he was reluctantly made aware of this leadership flaw by a few of his former colleagues. And the revelation was startling for him! Because he considered himself a friendly and approachable leader during his tenure as a CIO and believed that he took conscious efforts to make people feel comfortable while talking to him.

Well, then what went wrong? Understandably, our perceptions about ourselves can be vastly different from reality at times. But in this case, according to Syed Naqvi, Managing Partner, Heads Global, a global advisory and executive search firm, the problem perhaps lies somewhere else. It could be a lack of solid communication skills, his inability to build trust and openness among his colleagues and peers, a significant gap between modern and conventional thought processes, or a rigid hierarchy-based structure prevalent within the organization.

While this gap in the skillsets or processes may have still not significantly squeezed the organization’s growth in the years before the pandemic, the consequences of such CIO leadership gaps can be very harsh in the current testing times, where technology elevates strategy.

“As we have experienced in the last two years, the pandemic has brought people closer to technology. Pandemic has been seen as an accelerator to digital technology globally. About 60-70% of the CIOs and CTOs designated leaders are quite conventional in their approach. They hold the position because they have risen from the rank and have been in the system for long enough. They are facing the heat from the young and nimble tech-savvy organizations,” Naqvi elaborates.

To thrive in the vastly different digital world and avoid situations like above, CIOs need to tweak their leadership style significantly that can help them drive more experimentation, innovation, and learning to increase business value in these transformative times and make businesses future-proof.

Based on our deliberations with senior technology and hiring leaders, here are the eight emerging leadership traits that CIOs must embrace to succeed in 2022 and beyond.

1. More resilient- In 2022 and beyond, as organizations move toward accelerating their growth agenda while defining new ways of working, the actions taken by CIOs will influence people and processes throughout the organization.

The boardroom spotlight is on CIOs to guide, influence, and inspire organizations to stay resilient and accomplish productivity marvels even during adversity. Organizations expect CIOs to steady the ship while integrating core business and IT operations to build a resilient enterprise in the new normal.

COVID-19 is a humanitarian tragedy of an unprecedented level and a watershed event in all aspects. The recurring waves of the pandemic have added more layers of complexities due to the frequently changing customer and employee expectations. The past two years have been demanding from an emotional, financial, and health perspective. As employees, customers and organizations look to rebound from the pandemic in the year ahead, CIOs need to improve their adaptability levels, stay empathetic, have compassion, and think from the continuously evolving perspectives so that they can take action for the future.

For CIOs, it was tough, in 2019, to imagine that technology would be at the core of solving this global health crisis, and the CIO would be at the forefront of managing the health crisis. “Each of the three waves in the last two years brought its own set of challenges for CIO to navigate. While wave one was to ensure business continuity by supporting employees working away from the workplace, wave two was to institutionalize the new way of working. Finally, wave three various prioritized initiatives for technology transformation beyond COVID-19,” says Rajiv Sikka, Group CIO, Medanta Hospitals.

“Because of the distinct nature of the role in an enterprise, the CIO is involved in most functional areas. The last two years have witnessed many crisis scenarios in which the CIO role as a cross-functional business leader has been established. Changes in technologies and expectations from technologies are never new, but this transformation of the CIO from technology to business would be the New Normal and would continue to stay,” Sikka adds.

In such times, highly resilient leaders can handle anxiety, ambiguity, and impediments well to overcome new challenges and deliver exceptional results by motivating people and spreading positivity even during a crisis.

According to an EY report titled, Resilient enterprise: A CIOs point of view, CIOs should be ready for new, critical, and unexpected demand for technology services as the enterprise pivots to get ahead of the crisis. EY observes that the current situation forces industries to reinvent themselves for virtual and remote customer engagement rapidly. “It is a familiar journey ? most companies have been on the path of digital transformation already and will recognize this shift as a similar, yet more abrupt, change to their business model,” the report notes.

As articulated precisely by Natarajan Radhakrishnan, President & Global CIO, Hinduja Global Solutions (HGS), “CIOs of today need to be ‘Zen Masters’ with multiple skills. Technical skills are essential, but they must also have business, people, and change management skills. CIOs must involve strategic thinking in every decision they make because the company is no longer there. Today, they need to be nimbler since the product life cycle is getting shorter. Earlier, product differentiation was based on features, but it is based on personalization today. CIOs play a big role here.”

                                                                                                                                                                                           

2. Strong and effective communicator- Rarely in corporate history has a C-level executive role faced as much disruption as the CIOs have faced in the last two years. And there is no looking back! With so much to carry on their shoulders, today’s CIO needs to combine technology, business, and people skills in their leadership style more intelligently than ever.

Not only are CIOs expected to hold the organizational functions together leveraging tech prowess, but the changing times also warrant them to step into the shoes of business leaders, change managers, and chief brand custodians.

They need to learn to articulate their thoughts and messages clearly at different forums, internal, external social media channels, and C-level discussion boards while keeping in mind the understanding levels of a diverse audience.

“The pandemic has opened up opportunities and changed the existing business model in several industries. CIOs need to align and work closely with businesses to deliver tailor-made solutions which will enable the New Normal. As such, communicating well with their employees and business become a key requisite for success,” says Joy Kurian, Group CTO, Quess Corp, a leading business service provider.

                                                                                                                                                                                 

There is a continuous change and impact of technology, and as such, CIOs need to have excellent and strong communication skills as one of the critical traits to remain impactful. The remote and hybrid work environments, for instance, have resurrected the issues of shadow IT. To tackle that, CIOs have a huge responsibility to continuously track and review training needs for their people and drive impactful data protection strategies.

Enterprises expect them to be progressive thinkers and cross-functional leaders aligned with the unique business needs and market opportunities to drive innovation.

3. Agile, flexible, and problem solver- The upheaval has significantly impacted how people and organizations operate, collaborate, and make decisions. Work-from-home, for instance, became a mainstream paradigm overnight from being considered an alternative or a privilege earlier within many organizations.

In these tumultuous times, there may not be straight ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. You have to make decisions depending on the situation and context, constantly changing. What might be a good idea last month may not be relevant today. That’s the speed at which things are shaping.

In such a scenario, exemplifying an agile and flexible mindset enables people and teams to think from a relevancy perspective and build future-proof and more impactful solutions that can help improve revenues and speed to delivery.

“Earlier, it was command and control (C&C) and now more connection and collaboration. The C&C exists, but the connotation has changed. This means that for any leadership position, what businesses are looking for very clearly is agility in the individual. How flexible and out of the box is he? How innovative is he? The whole criteria for performance have changed 360-degree today,” states Syed Naqvi of Heads Global.

Agile leaders look at fiascos as an opportunity to learn and create innovative and transformative solutions. Employees expect modern CIOs as leaders who listen to people, encourage them to share their thoughts, experiment with new ideas, and remain lenient if things don’t work out as planned. “Today’s CIOs need to significantly enhance their learning quotient, collaboration skills, and team management efforts. In these uncertain times, CIOs need to constantly think and identify the best ways to build an ecosystem which can enable them to respond and address issues without delay,” states Vijay Sethi, Chairman (Advisory Board), MentorKart & Former CIO & CHRO, Hero MotoCorp.

A heavy-handed approach and demanding tangible results or ROI quickly from all technology implementations or processes can destroy the possibility of developing an exceptional product or service.

Dhiren Savla, CIO, VFS Global, emphasized the criticality of short-term planning while organizations may continue to focus on the long-term needs of the business in these uncertain times. “Nearly two years of frequent lockdowns and disruptions made businesses look at long-term forecasts. But given the uncertainties witnessed in the past few months and the wake of a new variant, I believe short-term planning is equally essential. Therefore, agility must be a key part of business strategy.”

                                                                                                                                                                                        

By leveraging data-intensive technologies, they are better equipped to make informed and focused decisions for the short and long-term.

“I have believed in creating an IT foundation that keeps the organization ahead of time and future-ready. Therefore, a seat at the Executive Board’s table for CIOs would be imperative for businesses to stay relevant in the future. Empowerment and ownership would help them anchor the short and long-term organizational goals. CIOs’ ability to align business strategies and application of technology in overachieving goals would be key,” Savla adds.

4. Great collaborator- Leaders drive the behavior of an organization. As we are in the middle of a major global health crisis, enterprises need to uphold the momentum of their IT modernization efforts while also prepping themselves for any adversity.

Any deployments around the emerging tech such as IoT or AI-enabled automation, for instance, are intricate in nature and need robust collaboration efforts between several departments across an organization. No longer can an enterprise succeed with a traditional siloed IT approach. In addition, having buy-in from all stakeholders and C-suite peers is also critical. The modern CIOs need to be intuitive, responsive, exceptional listeners, transparent and approachable. They should be open to collaboration internally and externally to achieve outstanding business outcomes and listen to understand and not necessarily respond. That’s the only way to convert the new normal position into a winning place.

“It is critical to understand how technology will be useful for your organization. You can’t use the same yardsticks for different businesses. Your business goals should be aligned with the technology. In such a setup, it becomes paramount for technology leaders to have a collaborative mindset and how the needs of employees and customers can be fulfilled by the technology they adopt. A new-age CIO needs to hold regular meetings with C-level peers to understand how the business is growing what challenges management is facing,” says Sendil Kumar Venkatesan, CTO, Shriram Capital.

Effective collaboration will enable them to determine which technologies need to be built and outsourced after considering workforce and competency considerations. Accomplishing a collaborative mindset is easier said than done. CIOs need to strengthen their relationship-building skills and focus on helping others succeed when others are in need.

A collaborative mindset creates a win-win situation for both IT heads and businesses. With all technology efforts to deliver exceptional customer experiences, a collaborative leader ensures that internal employees, back office, and engineers have the necessary tools and technologies to do their jobs effectively. After all, it’s the happy employees responsible for customer delight.

CIO should be approachable to discuss how leveraging a particular tech business can be more impactful.

5. Skillful negotiator- The modern-day CIO is a change leader responsible for spearheading business results in the interest of the strategic directives of his organization.

According to Gartner’s CIO Resolution 2022 report, as the IT decision-makers face competing and ever-shifting challenges in the year ahead, they need to move smartly and decisively and work as a hostage negotiator to hammer out priorities with their executive peers. To accomplish that, they need to be active listeners, mindful of and intentional with their body language, maintain eye contact, and avoid judgment. Most importantly, they need to prioritize developing rapport with their peers and teams by building mutual understanding and making necessary cultural cues and context adjustments.

“To convince the management, technology leaders should have the ability and skills to influence the management to tell them what is needed and why it is needed,” says Venkatesan of Shriram Capital.

Agrees, Natarajan Radhakrishnan of HGS, “On the business side, CIOs must have tremendous knowledge and understanding of the marketplace. On the people side, earlier talent was highly local, but today the geographical boundaries are diminished thanks to remote working. The location of the candidate doesn’t matter anymore. Change management is the most crucial skill of the CIO today. They need to get buy-in from all their stakeholders, which means CIOs need to convince them with rational and emotional arguments.”

6. Inspiring and trusting- Trust is the essential ingredient and trait that leaders should focus on in these unknown times. Trust is fostered and built among stakeholders along multiple dimensions: physical, emotional, financial, and emotional. In its report, titled The essence of resilient leadership ? business recovery from COVID-19, Deloitte notes that trust starts at the human, interpersonal level. “COVID-19 has heightened stakeholder sensitivity across these four dimensions, which offers greater opportunities to act to build ? or lose ? trust. For instance, trust may be built among employees when leaders thoughtfully consider how to reengage the employees in the office, or when they go to great length to preserve as many jobs as possible, rather than just preserving profits,” it mentions.

The customers and employees will be cautious and anxious given the market uncertainties. The modern CIOs should not follow conventional bureaucratic practices and take proactive steps to forge a more change-ready culture and inspire their teams by taking actions that demonstrate empathy, transparency, and accountability while dealing with unique and unparalleled situations. Your efforts should explain how technology can help in driving stakeholder-focused outcomes.

“Technology is uncomplicated here and is just an enabler, but as a leader, we have to go beyond basics. We have to focus on what matters, and, in my view, it is the team. The leader has to establish a conducive environment of trust and confidence where the team can work. As a leader, CIO has to show empathy and flexibility to accommodate the team who is working in a distressed situation,” says Rajiv Sikka of Medanta Hospitals.

7. Positive intervenor

A good problem solver requires a clear definition of the problem. A CIO needs to thoroughly understand the organization’s business processes to comprehend that problem well. That explains the recent emphasis on understanding business.

Today?and that has got underlined during and after the pandemic?the expectation from technology is more. It is beyond solving a defined, well-understood problem. Application of technology is a strategic business differentiator, and hence the CEO is always looking to be the first to create value for their company through newer and emerging technologies. To remain ahead in what is often described as a ‘use case’ regime, a business must proactively think of using new technology to create value for itself. It is expected that the CIO would introduce these new technologies to the business ahead of the competition. That means they would be the Chief Innovation Officers and Chief Intervention Officers of their organizations.

                                                                                                   

Three skills are required for this. First and foremost, the CIO must have a good view of the emerging technology landscape, not just mature technologies. Two, CIOs must understand the industry and market dynamics of the business they operate in?that is not just a micro, process view but also a macro view.

Three, they must be a first learner and must find ways of combining these two to quickly apply new technologies to their business, which will give them an edge over competitors and sometimes allow them some time to experiment and fail. Sometimes, that may mean working with and learning from start-ups in their industry and other industries.

This requires the CIO to think on white canvass, not only when they are given a well-defined problem to solve.

Apart from skills, it requires a mindset change too.

8. Coach, mentor, and talent builder- Upskilling the workforce in sync with new tools would be a critical goal in every technology roadmap. Many technology leaders saw these challenges while adapting to hybrid work models. In 2022, they are expected to play a crucial role in sourcing and identifying new talent for their businesses and need to ensure new tools and systems to reskill and upskill people and make them ready for future needs.

“This is just the beginning of an inspirational journey wherein a tech leader would have to take a larger responsibility of becoming the overarching link holding businesses together,” says Savla of VIS Global.

There is much focus from companies on leveraging technologies such as automation that can help enhance processes, reduce dependencies, improve supply chains, and, of course, the R&D part. And because of the extensive digitalization and change, the talent part has also been impacted hugely. “This continuous transition and transformation require today’s CIOs to have the ability to translate change management effectively. They need to understand their talent’s fluctuating needs and challenges and address their learning requirements based on the new technology environment. The focus should be on customized coaching sessions on new processes,” says Sandeep Balooja, Founder & Managing Partner, S&L Consultants, and former Executive Chairman, Mando Automotive.

According to Rajiv Sikka, in these volatile times, it has become far more critical for CIOs to focus on talent development while also ensuring that they have a second-in-command for the team to do some heavy lifting and forge an enduring relationship with the business. This, according to Sikka, will help CIO to release their bandwidth and focus on big-ticket things like board agenda items

“Earlier, the term CIO used to resonate with Career Is Over. With the volatility in the ecosystem, the CIO needs to wear multiple hats, such as chief learner, chief inspirer, chief innovator, and chief crisis manager, to inspire the rest of the group to act better as things change. It is not humanly possible for CIO to be the expert of a vast area of influence or to be present everywhere,” Rajiv Sikka recapitulates.

 

By Jatinder Singh

You can reach out to author at jatinder.singh@9dot9.in

 

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