The interview: Gartner VPs Tina Nunno and Heather Colella

16 Jul 2014

The CIO role is now viewed as the game-changer in the organisation and a desired position on the career ladder, say Gartner vice-presidents Heather Colella and Tina Nunno, author of The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing.

For years now we’ve been hearing about how CIOs need to push themselves further at the boardroom table and stand on equal terms with other C-level executives.

If anything, because the world is increasingly being viewed through a digital lens the CIO is now leading the digital transformation of an organisation.

For Colella and Nunno, the time has never been better for CIOs to shine and if anything they have to vie not only with the CFO for budget but also the CMO who also wants to lead a digital transformation.

With opportunity comes danger and while grasping the opportunity new threats and new frustrations also emerge, they warn.

Colella, a seasoned management consultant who was CEO of her own consulting firm and a former managing director with KPMG and BearingPoint, she focuses on how CIOs contribute to business results. Passionate about strategy Colella believes effective communications is the key to winning hearts and minds around the boardroom table.

Nunno, is the author of The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing and specialises in CIO-related management issues. She previously worked at the US Library of Congress and was a Parliamentary Task Force programme director.

The core tenet of Nunno’s book is the thinking of Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli who implied you’re either predator or prey, and the animal you most resemble determines your position on the food chain. She posits the wolf — a social animal with strong predatory instincts — as the ideal example of how a leader can adapt and thrive.

Pack leader

Now that there is no doubt that digital is at the heart of every enterprise’s strategy for revenue growth I ask them if they believe the CIO’s job has gotten easier or tougher as a result.

“I still think their toughest challenge is to engage the hearts and minds of their executive counterparts and in a manner that cause them to want to invest in what the future is,” Colella said.

“The challenge for any CIO is to be able to talk business and create a vision without using the words ‘technology’ or ‘digital.’”

I ask them are CIOs also faced with a threat whereby budget is shifting in the direction of digital marketing instead of fixing core IT issues to keep the business running smoothly.

“One of the biggest things that has shifted for CIOs is that the name of the game nowadays is really competitive advantage and driving top line revenue,” explains Nunno.

“Historically IT was viewed as a bottom line expense which is an unfortunate financial viewpoint on what IT is all about. When it is done extremely well it really is a competitive weapon. Increasingly boards of directors are understanding that.

“Making that transition is challenging when so many organisations are still viewing IT as a service provider. We are trying to break the service provider construct and move into IT in a leadership position.”

“Let’s face it being a great service provider is fantastic but that’s about following and reacting. It’s about doing what others ask of you and it’s about following what ever has been requested.

“Leadership is about giving them what they couldn’t imagine that they wanted but they couldn’t have imagined they needed, but couldn’t imagine the market would respond to.

“Doing that requires a combination of technical expertise, creativity and teamwork with the rest of the organisation. Right now we don’t need CIOs who are just service providers we need to let them be what most of them are: visionaries.”

Deep business savvy

Colella added that in order to be appreciated as visionaries CIOs need to be able to demonstrate a deep business savvy and an understanding of their organisation’s goals.

And just because digital technologies are front and centre, Nunno recommends businesses take a lean methodology to managing their IT budgets. “Organisations have to be very discriminating about what IT they do and don’t take on. Especially with the small amount of IT resources they can draw on.”

For CIOs she advises that they be ruthless about making sure they are working on higher value projects.

“In many ways it is about changing the mindset from that of just giving the business what they want to really scrutinising if we put this investment in how does it impact our revenues or how does this help with the bottom line?

“It is about asking the hard questions to make sure that that portfolio of IT can be as highly valuable as it could possibly be. This is a huge mind shift.”

Colella said that there has never been a better point in time for CIOs to shine because of the myriad of different IT delivery models such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s cloud and no doubt the fruits of BYOD and useful apps and services like Dropbox.

“It’s a cool point in time too because we have all kinds of delivery methods available – the cloud – so you can take that which is a commodity to the enterprise, pop it to the cloud and invest every extra penny in moving the needle on business performance. It’s a great time to be a CIO.”

The CIO is the future CEO

However, Colella warns that there are many industries that have yet to embrace digital transformation and still expect their CIOs to bring the coffee and donuts. But that is changing.

“I think they definitely have a fighting chance,” Nunno agrees. “This is, as Heather said, a wonderful opportunity for CIOs to change the name of the game. Because so many boards want competitive advantage from IT, it puts IT in position to change the entire interaction.”

But for change to happen CIOs need to be that change. They’ve got to stop seeing the rest of the organisation as customers, putting them in a service provider mode, and remind themselves they are a vital spoke, if not the hub, in the wheel of the business.

“Frequently I talk to CIOs about alignment which is a term that is quickly becoming outdated. ‘Why aren’t we aligned?’ they ask. Issue number one is you don’t have the same customers as the rest of your business. Sometimes colleagues in other part of the business are to blame because its nice to have a service provider, who wouldn’t want one.

“If everyone is working for the end customer of a business, everybody wins.|

Colella said that traditional mindsets remain among CIOs because many of them tend to be an older community, very senior on the career ladder.

“From our research only 35pc really have a full appreciation of how to exploit technology so there’s a lag between vision and capability.”

Another interesting change taking place is as younger executives move up through the ranks of an organisation they see the CIO role not as something for people with computer science backgrounds, but a role they to can aspire to.

Indeed being able to claim you led a digital transformation of a business would look quite good on the resume.

According to Gartner one out of four CIOs today has no technology background , so there’s an interesting shift happening in how organisations and individuals view leadership.

This is in no doubt led by examples such as that of Apple’s chief designer Jony Ive, an industrial designer who is now at the heart of Apple’s technology direction.

“In many cases CIOs were executives who were actually on the CEO path and they were rotating through the different executive leadership positions. Because boards recognise the importance of technology, IT is becoming part of the rotation that is leading to that.”

Colella added that holding a CIO position is now considered a way of rounding an individual to be able to be at the helm of a large organisation.

Machiavellian tactics

I put it to Nunno that when people hear of Machiavellian tactics, they think of people ruthlessly scheming for their own advancement, which misses the entire point of who Machiavelli was; a public servant who wrote The Prince as a guide to serving the better interests of a city state.

“One of the reasons I embarked on the Machiavellian research was for those that have a more technology background they are highly unlikely to have read Machiavelli. It doesn’t tend to feature in a computing or engineering degree syllabus. On the other hand folks with MBAs tend to read Machiavelli and be inspired by it.

“At the very least if you don’t intend to use Machiavellian tactics you at least should be aware of them so that you have a first line of defence. Preferably if you are aware of the tactics to use them in a healthy way for the greater good of the organisation.

“As you noted Machiavelli is frequently misunderstood; people will believe he was all about self-interest and personal gain. In fact he was a public servant his entire life and he truly believed in a prince being benevolent, making tough decisions to keep the peace and making tough decisions so that society could flourish.

“One of the reasons I wrote it, frequently when I met an amazing CIO I would ask them how they became this way and frequently they told me they had read Machiavelli so there was clearly something to putting Machiavelli and technology together,” she concluded.

C-suite image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years