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The CIO voice in the boardroom: Skills needed to get there

At a recent webinar, IT leaders discussed the factors driving the absence of a CIO voice in the boardroom and highlighted the skills they need to earn a seat at the table.

As technology accelerates business transformation and innovation, board level conversations include topics such as redefining customer experience through the deployment of emerging technologies.

This shift requires a CIO voice in the boardroom now, more than ever.

"There is truly a need to have a knowledgeable technologist sitting at the board and being able to help clear up the fog associated with a lot of the terminology that is flying around the boardroom," said Virginia Gambale, managing partner at Azimuth Partners and a former CIO, during a recent webinar hosted by Argyle.

Unfortunately, the absence of a CIO voice in the boardroom continues across industries, panelists agreed. Company culture and the CIO reporting structure plays a role in this absence, according to Stephen Elkins, CIO for the City of Austin.

"If you do not have the CIO at the table, the CIO pretty much has to break down the door and they have to create a space. ... At the executive level, they may not have shifted just yet to see the value of the CIO at the table," Elkins said.

Another factor is that many times a CIO is so busy focusing on the day to day that they don't develop a long-term strategy -- or simply isn't able to verbalize a clear, articulate vision for how technology is going to change the company's Business model, said Sanjay Shringarpure, CIO at E. & J. Gallo Winery.

"Most CIOs that I've interacted with don't have what they want to really do in a distinct clear vision. Without that, no one's going to give you a seat at the table," Shringarpure said.

The absence of the CIO voice in the boardroom means that the business will try to drive technology investments, said Herman Brown, CIO at San Francisco district attorney's office. A CIO voice in the boardroom can help explain the benefits of consolidating tools and solutions, and how it lowers organizational costs in the process, Brown added.

Skills to drive the CIO's boardroom effectiveness

Modern CIOs need to be more of a strategic business partner and less of an order taker, Elkins said. The way to do that is to have a seat in the boardroom and be integral to strategy conversations.

If you do not have the CIO at the table, the CIO pretty much has to break down the door and they have to create a space.
Stephen ElkinsCIO, City of Austin

"CIOs at one point were order takers ... and then there was a shift where CIOs were in a dictator mode where it was, 'Here's the technology, here's what you need,'" Elkins said. "But if you're not in the room, you go back to being an order taker because people know what they want now." 

CIOs should also remember that being a business executive is different than being solely focused on IT, and therefore they must concentrate on improving the experience of the end user versus what is the latest, greatest technology that they can offer, Brown said.

This requires successful CIOs to be good listeners in addition to being business-minded, innovative relationship builders, he added.

"You have to listen to the organization, to the department, to the people that you support ... to understand what their problems are and what it is that they're trying to achieve so that you can come up with a solution that actually meets that business need," Brown said.

It is also paramount that CIOs know how to communicate at the business level, breaking down tech lingo into language that the business-focused people can understand, he added.

For example, Elkins said CIOs should refrain from using the term digital transformation when interacting with their partners or the organizations they support.

"Digital transformation may be jargon for them. But again, if you're improving how they do business, shortening their cycle times and improving their service delivery, that's what they actually care about," Elkins said.

Being agile is also another skill that CIOs need because they have to deliver services fast and be proactive about boardroom-level recommendations, Elkins said.

"The CIO today has to be agile and look at a minimally viable product and put something in place that meets the needs immediately, and continue to build on that, or iterate on that interim solution," he said.

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