CW500 Interview – IT Leadership

Yes I know …. after months of inactivity, the blog is awash with interviews …. sorry for the absence but at least there’s some content now 🙂
Some original posts will follow soon (I promise), in the meantime here’s an interview from 5th October when Computer Weekly caught up with me at the CIO Connect 2010 conference. As always, your comments and thoughts are most welcome

Ian Cohen is chief information officer (CIO) at insurance and re-insurance group Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Prior to that, he held the top IT job at Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times. On the sidelines of CIO Connect’s Business as Unusual event earlier this week, Cohen talked to Computer Weekly about some current topics around IT leadership.

How important is staying in touch with the latest advances in technology for a CIO?

It is vitally important. If ever there was a time when you needed to be a proper hybrid CIO, the time is now. You absolutely have to be able to seamlessly move between IT and business, because your customers are already doing it. Mass [IT] consumerisation is here and it is a reality, people are increasingly bringing their own devices in and asking why they can’t use them in the workplace.

As technologists, we have to stop apologising for the fact that we understand technology, but we also have to be equally adept in the line of business we are operating in. The CFO never apologises for being an expert in finance, the marketing director never apologises for being an expert in marketing, so why would the CIO need to apologise for being a technologist and be something else? It is OK to be a both a technologist and a business leader. In fact, it is absolutely what you have to be.

Increasingly, CIOs and technology leaders have to understand how to harness that disruption for the positive impact that it can bring to their organisations. For example, the CEO and the marketing director could come to you and say they want iPads. If all you can do is put email on the device and give them a Citrix connection, that is not disruptive technology, it is just another channel.

However, if you understand enough about what’s possible from the technology and how it could interfere in your business processes, you can make that introduce positive disruptions,  shorten workflows, provide data that supports decision-making based on the location of the individual and many other things. IT has the power to transform and does it through the disruptive nature of the technology, so you have to know what that disruption can do.

How can you spot disruptive technologies?

You need a good personal radar. If your chief executive asks you what you think of the iPad, you need to at least know what it can do. So you need to be a little bit immersive in technology and try these things, so you have a practical experience – but not to the point technology becomes the end of itself.

You also need a good network and contacts, as well as incredibly bright people around you. It is part of the CIO role as a leader to harness the talent around them. It is not a one-way thing: I don’t create the space for people to do great things and then not expect anything back in return; what I expect back in return is an insight into the things that may become practically useful.

Given that users are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, will we reach a point where business people will be IT leaders and vice-versa?

I don’t think it is as black and white; there are lots of shades of gray around this. Those shades can be determined by the industry sector you are in as some are more advanced than others; the degree of regulation in the environments their businesses are in as that would drive some of the behaviours around data. It won’t be a one-size-fits all kind of thing. What will happen is that the boundaries will blur to varying degrees and we’ll start having some new and exciting conversations about the are of the possible.

Would you say that the business-IT divide many technology leaders have talked about is a self-inflicted problem?

Yes, it is. Shame on us! I have a huge problem with anybody who still talks about business and IT alignment. If you spending you time talking about this and using the word “alignment”, you are reinforcing separation. Those days are gone – if you are still having that debate, go to somebody else.

If you have to talk about alignment, you should be thinking about alignment with your customers – understanding how they want to interact with technology and how you can the information they require. What you should be worried about is understanding and enabling the strategic intent of the organisation, because when you get to the board table that is what you talk about.

What advice would you give to IT leaders looking to get that much-coveted place on the board?

Just get over it. No-one has a G-d given right to be at the board table and we have to earn our place. There is nothing wrong with being a service provider. The only thing that is wrong about it is delivering bad service and we’re all only as good as our last outage. If you can’t handle that, go do another job.

When you are delivering great service, the prize you get as a CIO is immense. No one in the organisation can see the world through your eyes or engage with the CEO the way you can: the marketing guy can change the brand, the CFO can make the numbers add up, but CIOs can transform. So get over the whole service bit, because that is what you have to do, that is your job. Once you do that brilliantly, everything else is available to you.

What CEOs expect from a top-performing CIO

….and what does outstanding CIO performance even look like?

A few weeks back I did an interview with Mark Samuels for as part of a piece on “What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO?” For those of you who missed it here it is with some bits that missed the final edits :

The starting point, says Jardine Lloyd Thompson CIO Ian Cohen, is to understand your personal attributes (or strengths)  and those of your team rather than focussing on potential weaknesses and trying to fix those. “You cant ignore weaknesses but an outstanding leader will focus on their strengths – and those within their teams – and look to exploit them. For example , they will seek out their natural communicators – the ones who have a talent (or strength) for building great relationships – and orientate them to towards their customers so that thay can do even more with that talent. Effective dialog, in business speak (not techno babble), is your currency and you need people who have this as their strength.

“We spend way too much time trying to turn people into something they are not and fix their weaknesses,” he says. “It’s complete nonsense to think that fixing something bad will create something great. If you take ‘bad’ and just invert it – you get ‘not bad’, which is light years away from ‘great’. Find the activities that strengthen you personally, and the people you lead, and look to do those activities more often.”

When it comes to personal capabilities, Cohen is well aware of his own strengths. He says he “happens to be good at technology” because of the chronology of his career and an employment path that has included senior IT positions at media giants Associated Newspapers, Financial Times and Lloyds TSB.

Technological nuts and bolts
However, Cohen is also open enough to recognise that an aptitude for IT is not necessarily his most important individual asset. “For me, focussing on the nuts and bolts of technology doesn’t make the working day whiz by. Sure I know how stuff works and increasingly the hybrid CIO is going to have to stay abreast of how things work (our customers are becoming far more tech savvy), but it’s not exciting emotionally,” he says.

“My real strength – the activity that strengthens me – is creating an environment where bright people can do great stuff. I’m a story teller; painting pictures about what might be possible through the exploitation of existing and new technologies. That’s when time races by and I’m at my most animated and enthused.”

That sense of creation is something Cohen believes is a core feature of an outstanding CIO. Top technology chiefs, he suggests, will recognise how different members of the team contribute to the organisational whole: “You need to orient people, and the business, around individual strengths. You need to know how to combine people to create more effective teams and to develop next-generation leaders.”

If Cohen is right, helping to make the most of your – and your team’s assets – is crucial for the successful CIO. But what does the boss think? What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO, and how can an IT chief develop the leadership skills that constitute an outstanding executive?

Customer awareness and project skills
For Vin Murria, CEO of Advanced Computer Software Group, strong customer awareness and an ability to deliver projects are of paramount importance.

She is an experienced business leader, having previously been CEO of CSG and chief operating officer at Kewill. Drawing on her experiences, she suggests the CIO’s job is really no different to the CEO’s.

“We’re both here to help deliver benefits to our customers. It’s just that, in most cases, the CIO is great with technology and the CEO is more attuned to the business,” says Murria. Sceptics might suggest that the second point is the difference.

Too many CIOs lack ofbusiness acumen. But it does not have to be this way, suggests Murria – and a new cadre of business-savvy IT executives are coming through.

“It’s not so much the technology bent, it’s the commercial recognition that helps them prove why it is worth investing in new IT,” she says.

Development of the next generation
Like Cohen, then, Murria recognises that technical aptitude is just one tool in an outstanding CIO’s kitbag. And like Cohen, she also says a top executive will prioritise the development of the next generation: “IT has really created the foundations for its own success but you have to be constantly thinking about what you’re going to do next,” she says.

A focus on the career ladder comes naturally to recruitment specialist Tim Cook, who runs the CIO practice for Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), a search firm with more than 300 consultants based in 40 offices around the world.

Cook receives regular briefings from CEOs about the type of CIO they are looking for. And such searches, he says, are often framed by the question: “What does outstanding look like?”

When it comes to answering the question, Cook says CEOs often frame their description in communication terms: “We want someone that’s one of us; someone who can talk about the business and be part of the business,” he says, referring to the specific language of business leaders.

Strong business communicators
CEOs do not talk about technology but they do talk about specific IT issues. Cook says UK bosses talk about how technological innovation can be used to address modern business concerns. Here, they might talk about collaboration or the way technology can be used to communicate with customers across multiple channels.

“CEOs are looking for people with strong communication skills. They’re looking for negotiation and the ability to push back. It’s difficult to learn later on in life. Get on top early and you’ll have more chance to move your career on,” he says.

“Business executives won’t care about the specifics of technology. CIOs need to frame the business case in terms of profit and loss. And talking in terms of business outcomes will clearly be helpful. CIOs need to talk the language of business and some are now making that transition.”