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Boardroom Beckons, Dear CIOs: Not Tech But Soft Skills Will Get You There

The new-age CIO must be someone who can negotiate the boardroom politics as well as any other functional head


One of the enduring stories that are stuck with me is one of Steve Jobs asking John Sculley “Do you want to sell sugar water all your life, or do you want to change the world?”. Sculley then was running Pepsi and was generally considered a corporate Rockstar. He left Pepsi, for Apple and the rest is, of course, history.

What I have often found in the Indian enterprise is the focus on subject matter experts heading the function. So you will essentially see a CA or an MBA in Finance heading the finance function and a from-the-trenches salesperson heading the marketing and sales. One can understand that. But what one cannot understand is the focus of the enterprise in having a ‘techie’ heading the information function and confining him/her there. This is just incongruous.

Two things are important to understand here. Technology doesn’t work in silos. No enterprise buys technology for the heck of it. It has to fulfil a business need and needs a metric against which its efficacy is measured. Second, the importance of technology has gone way beyond the CIO or CTO office. Today, your Twenty-something sales executive is probably a heavier use of digital tools than your CTO. The former can teach you tricks that even the platform vendor couldn’t. Now what does that mean?

With the ‘digital’ workplace permeating every aspect of the company, the number of specialist techies that an enterprise needs will probably come down. With the debate on tech infrastructure ranging from private cloud to hybrid cloud to public cloud, the management of the same will be the remit of the service provider. Most of an enterprise’s technology investment will be the result of an enormous amount of consultative behavior, between the tech vendor(s), inhouse teams, external consultants, industry peers, and so on.

The concept of one in-house tech guru deciding on the technology to be adopted was discarded years ago. The result of this is that functional managers are today equal stakeholders in the decision to buy a tech solution.

This presents the CIO with a unique challenge and an opportunity. Challenge in the sense that the ‘power’ over tech decision is shifting laterally to other CXOs. To that extent, the CIO is one of the decision makers, certainly not the sole and definitely not the key decision maker. However, this presents also another great opportunity for the CIO to also move laterally and use his tech knowledge as an asset but focus more on interpersonal skills and boardroom skills.

In the current scenario, where ‘digital transformation’ is going to be the buzzword for at least the foreseeable future, the new-found importance of the CIO can be a harness to secure a position at the top table – the boardroom. The entire enterprise will need to address the new normal, using technology as the fulcrum–but as one that delivers and propels the company onto a higher trajectory of growth.

The functional needs of the enterprise will not change–be it Finance, Marketing or Operations. However, there will be a massive need to entwine all of these functional departments into some sort of a digital mesh that delivers business results.

I believe the CIO who gets this is already ahead. S/he will be able to use her superior understanding of digital technology and tools and could become the prime mover of the enterprise in its digital journey.

My argument is that s/he can do this not by leveraging her tech advantage but inculcating and developing the other softer management skills, which have more to do with communication, behavioral, interpersonal and a deep understanding of the enterprise’s business goals and strategies. This will call for a CIO who is not just tech-savvy (that is a given), but also someone who is a well-rounded personality and not a ‘nerd who can just manage networks and architecture’. Above all, a CIO must be someone who can negotiate the boardroom politics as well as any other functional head.

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