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Why every CIO needs to be a hands-on leader to succeed

Christopher C. Barron | Dec. 21, 2016
In previous years, a hands-on designation meant practitioner, not leader. In not understanding how to embrace more direct participation, CIOs fear being branded as tactical. Yet hands-on IT executives are now getting the choice career opportunities.

For CIOs, the struggle to gain organizational respect and parity with other CXOs has always been real. In the past, one way that IT executives knew they had “made the grade” was to be considered strategic. In other words, the transition from working on computers, banging out code, and answering tickets to sitting as a member of the senior leadership team showed the outside world that a person had achieved the ultimate career success.

But just as CIOs started to settle into the corner office, the world changed. Computers were no longer mysterious devices that took specially trained experts to use. Beginning in about 2011, technology of all types started to rapidly migrate into all aspects of companies and into the hands of every employee.

The consumerization of IT

Most Baby Boomers and even some Gen X’ers can remember when computers were nowhere to be found in a corporate office. In the early 1990s, the first ubiquitous Internet access brought email and web services into the business environment. Next came enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and other large scale software applications. Still, these systems were hardly user friendly, and the backend data centers stuffed with blinking boxes were, to most, just huge money pits.

It wasn’t until IT started to become personal and accessible that the role of IT started to change. Although hard to believe, it was video game consoles like the Xbox and Playstation models that first introduced the public to the science of IT. Although focused on entertainment, to make them work people had to learn about networking, hardware installation and support, application maintenance, and helpdesk principles. Shortly thereafter in the corporate environment, the advent of first smartphones, followed by tablets, and finally computer virtualization allowed non-IT workers to become completely comfortable with using and managing technology.

With the lines blurred between personal and professional use of IT, companies of all types could see how IT was directly applicable to business performance.

Today, examples such as the way Uber has completely upended the global market for cabs and how Netflix has helped destroy the traditional model for cinematic and small screen entertainment shows just how quickly IT can enable change on a massive scale.

As the tools change, so must the leaders

As a CIO, try to imagine conducting a survey of all the ways your business customers use technology today. No matter the actual answers, you would find that almost all of the respondents are very capable in the use of IT in ways they couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago. With that being the case, how then could you as the senior-most technology leader in your company justify being 100 percent strategic? The CIO who has no practical experience with the technologies she manages is actually less technically capable than her customers. If this is the true, the customers will know and the CIO’s credibility will suffer.


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