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The role of the IT Leader – Are you developing enough business savvy?

Written by:
October 2015
Categories: For the IT Leader, Podcasts

Reading time estimate Reading time: 9 minutes

The world of IT is never static, and the role of the IT Leader is one of the most challenging in any organisation. Often the CIO is under attack for not having enough business savvy, whilst at the same time being under the cosh for poor IT performance.

A key challenge for today’s IT Leader is the shift towards cloud-based and SaaS applications and services. This is leading a shift away from the traditional ‘Big Bang’ projects of the past.

I spoke with business psychologist Steve Gilbert to get his views on how IT leaders are adapting to this new world.

But first some background on Steve. Not only is he a business psychologist, with a BSc(Hons) in Psychology, and an MSc in Occupational Psychology from Birkbeck College, but he also has RQTU and EFPA in psychometrics. Through CPD he focuses on Organisation Development, Leadership, and improving team dynamics. Steve is a member of the British Psychological Society, the Association of Business Psychology, the Institute of Directors, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. More recently he became a member of the Royal Society of Medicine. And to top the list off, he has an MBA.

Steve’s background includes time at several major global players – including Digital, Unisys, KPMG and Accenture – and he has worked with leaders within SME’s, and been a director and advisor to start-ups.


What I wanted to know from Steve was his views and experiences on how the role of the IT Leader is changing at great pace. If we look back, not too far, the role of the IT leader was focused on arriving new in an organisation, and really spending the first couple of years making wide-scale change. In my experience, once this change is embedded in the organisation the IT leader would often get bored, as the role morphed more into one of caretaker than change leader. This inevitably resulted in the IT Leader seeking a new challenge in a new organisation.

The change in  IT was focused on what you might call ‘IT things’ – i.e. new systems, infrastructure, outsourcing/insourcing, etc. Seldom did the IT leader really get involved in, or excited about, changes in the business world – although I would argue that the economic downturn has improved the situation over the past few years. That said, the CIO still has the lowest tenure of the ‘C-suite’.

With the maturing of virtual servers and environments, cloud-based services and SaaS products, and even the warming to public cloud services from big corporates, those big whole-scale IT change projects are becoming less common. In some instances we’re seeing business and IT leaders instead choosing best-of-breed, instantly available cloud-based solutions. At the same time the adoption of Agile approaches, bringing a combination of minimum viable products and the concept of ‘fail, and fail fast’, has meant that IT projects are moving away from the big bang approach common in traditional waterfall projects. However, things are improving.

IT leaders are at last starting to get excited about challenges in the business world which, let’s be honest, are never ending. So given this changing landscape, how does Steve see this changes the role of the IT leader?

“In my travels so to speak, I find people with deep technical knowledge i.e. technical or finance, however once a person moves into management there needs to be a step back and more breadth of knowledge. This requires people to develop more skills in management and business, and unless this has been supported and even in some cases funded (time and money) by the organisation, then development gets put on the back burner. This is especially true of IT managers and CIO’s, where the task and the ethnology of things is uppermost, rather than behaviours, attitudes and management of people. The challenge is to understand skills gaps, create and develop the right competencies, all whilst managing the day-to-day operations and technical career development. For CIO’s in particular there is a need to future-proof; to create strategy; and develop new innovative approaches to technology in business. This requires being at the top-table as well as looking at alignment, integration, agility and adaptability for the success of the business – the emphasis changing from operational and fire-fighting (easy to say) to being more strategic and engaged with the business.”

Does the IT Leader have the right skill set, or are they lacking in certain areas? And if so, what are the top 3 areas you feel an IT leader should be focusing on improving?

“The simple answer is no. However, it is not about throwing the baby out with the bath water. So how can psychology and coaching help? Firstly, the organisation itself needs to focus on talent management from potential managers and CIO’s, to current incumbents. Work with them to develop more people management and business skills. Secondly, it is about developing these skills – recognising that for a CIO it is complicated by the complexities of the stakeholder and ecosystems needed to support IT environments. Therefore the ability to deal with diversity, culture, functions and high demand decision-making make this a unique position. Thirdly, developing greater self-awareness and resilience. Recognising potential issues of well-being for oneself is important, as is understanding how to improve motivation in teams, and move towards higher performance and helping to lead and manage work-life balance.”

A career in IT is very challenging. The pace of change, combined with the need for deep technical expertise has traditionally meant that the IT team has had little time to go in-depth on business challenges. What approaches can the IT leader use to encourage their teams, whether infrastructure or developers, to focus on the business?

“You are right – a career in IT is very challenging. It is extremely fast moving, some might say high risk. It’s also very demanding in terms of knowledge, time and the complexity of some of the issues and problems that occur. One of the issues is that technical people develop along technical paths, and in most cases courses, training and development omits or dilutes focus and learning on business, people management and softer skills and knowledge. It then becomes much more difficult when individuals make the transition into management roles to develop these. It becomes a major turn. Hence when I help set up a Technical Career Development programme there was a renewed and comprehensive focus, throughout all levels and experience, on developing these skills in parallel. In essence, one could not move to the next technical grade without the business and people skills.

Another key factor is understanding individual difference and team dynamics; how to manage situationally; how to delegate effectively; and how to develop and drive teams – some of which may be virtual – into one cohesive force.”

If you were given the remit to restructure an IT function in a large corporate, what are the key changes that you would make? For instance, would you still prefer a centralised IT function, or would you use a distributed model with IT people sitting in the business?

“The answer is always a third way, and this is more about alignment with the business. What I am saying hear is that, too often it’s an either or strategy – centralise or not. The reality for CIO’s is that there is a centralised operation function – a backbone if you will – that is stable, protected and strategically understood. This can be considered the central systems and applications. It is strategic and vital, it is non-discretionary in terms of budgeting. It’s the lights-on arena.

However, what is occurring now is an environment outside the confines of tradition firewalls. We are now in the inter-world of BYOD, mobility and agility. For me, there are then three levels. The first is the stable world which, in my opinion, requires the absolute integration of the CIO and COO at the strategic level. The next level is the need for visible, adaptable and available support for business users; challenging them; adapting to their needs and working to improve productivity and performance. This is organisation-wide and the CIO should be linked in across a wide spectrum of business. The third level, and a key role I see of the CIO moving forward, is in the strategy and management of innovation; the ecosystems needed to differentiate and manage the business. This, in my opinion, requires different thinking from the board to include CIO’s, and of the CIO’s themselves.”

In your experience, is business ready for the new world of agile IT? Is there a risk even, that the IT function gets ahead of the business? And how might you develop or adapt the organisational culture in today’s Information Age?

“The IT function does need to be ahead of the business, it’s not a danger, it’s a legitimate and required element of IT. But of course, not at the expense of the day-to-day management and IT provision. My experience suggests too much complexity, too many failed projects, and too much belief in technology on its own to solve problems. The result is poor integration, lots of legacy, poor security procedures and processes, and an over-reliance on technology for technology sake.

How do you adapt? It’s goes back to what was suggested earlier. Technology should in one sense never in itself be a reason for change. What it should be is about adding value, removing the mundane, and when challenges do come up, to actually be solving the problems the people need solving. Therefore people are the key to technology adoption. To change and to maximising potential value from technology. Too many projects ultimately fail to deliver because the people element: behaviours, attitudes, motivations and culture was not factored or considered.

So psychology can help with the complexed and nuanced nature of human behaviours, helping to change and sustain behaviours, attitudes, motivations, and even in some cases changing culture. It provides methods to identify, transition and develop managers, and asses, analyse and profile individuals. In addition, creating greater self-awareness; greater resilience; skills and competency; and making mindset shifts for leaders and the organisation. Finally it can help provide support to understand diversity, culture, and team dynamics to promote and develop greater organisational effectiveness through providing more insight and depth to organisation change and development. This is on top of the strategy, structure and process, and of course the technical knowledge required to deliver change.”

“It’s about the technology, the business, and the people. And the nature of the individual themselves. Its much more complex with CIO’s.”


If you’d like to hear more from Steve then listen to the podcast version of this article by clicking on the lay button about, or by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes.

Through his consultancy, Casuga, Steve brings together his 20+ years of experience and expertise to make individuals and organisations more effective. His current clients include a number of global organisations in financial services, manufacturing, public sector and telecommunications. If you would like to learn about Steve and Casuga, take a look at their website.

And finally, if you would like help with your IT Leadership challenges, whether you fulfill a different C’ level role, are a CIO yourself, or if you require assistance getting others in the IT Leadership to improve their business savvy, then please do get in touch.



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