25 years ago I was moved into IT by the Board of the former chemical major ICI to serve as their new CIO, as global Vice President IT. My move was noted in the computing press – Computer Weekly made me their cover story one week (I have the art work – Sykes paddling the ICI canoe along the F.M. River). Interest focused on my background – 21 years in business management roles rather than IT, latterly in Japan leading the implementation of a £55 million manufacturing investment in high performance polyester film.
My brief as the new CIO was to transform a very techie function (1,300 strong) that had lost touch with the ICI businesses it was intended to serve – it was pursuing its own technically-driven agendas. That brief I successfully delivered over the next few years. But my role was essentially focused in ICT management – the management of our substantial ICT resources in tight alignment with the business objectives of the ICI divisions.
Fast forward 20 years, to a meeting of the judges for a power list of CIOs in 2013. One point of debate was the potential for high performing CIO’s to be promoted to become CEO. I opined, and there was consensus around the table, that this would not happen. The effective CIO lacked the experiential breadth to make the move. When, shortly thereafter, a former Tesco CIO was promoted, several job moves later, to become Tesco’s CEO I wrote in one of my columns for CIO magazine that his spell as CIO was ‘along the route’ of a well-planned career development – in itself an unusual but very sound approach to career development – and that he was not your classic CIO.
Fast forward a further five years to a recent Horizon CIO Podcast recorded between Mark Chillingworth, Catherine Stagg-Macey and myself: ‘Best time in years to be a CIO’. The trigger for our discussion was an earlier analysis by Horizon CIO podcast editor Mark Chillingworth reporting that ‘CIO role changes increased by 30% during 2017’. All the evidence pointed to this being a positive development. The CIOs moving on had all been in post for a number of years and were moving on to even more substantial roles. Particularly interesting were ‘cross vertical’ moves such as that of the Global CIO of Telefonica Phil Jordan to be Sainsbury’s Group CIO. Catherine’s pithy judgement was ‘I think IT is growing up from ugly duckling to beautiful swan’.
Reaching back to our 2013 judging session, Chillingworth challenged me on the issue of CIO headroom to become CEO, pointing out the 2017 promotion of CIO Sarah Wilkinson as CEO of NHS Digital. I responded by saying that times had moved on, and that a newer generation of CIOs were emerging ‘with the headroom’.
In the columns I have written for Horizon I have focused on the breadth of new business capabilities (such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence) that have been enabled by the development of contemporary computing power, including cloud computing. In parallel has been the development of commercial markets in technology-enabled services – such as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service’ (IaaS). This has shifted the field of play for the CIO onto broader agendas of partnership with her/his functional peers (sales, marketing, production, distribution, research…) at a time when market competition presses for transformational performance.
The newer generation of board leadership is also now more tech-savy and thus more responsive to a business-focused partnership with their CIO. On all evidence the CIOs we focused on in our podcast have taken full advantage of this more positive environment to strongly broaden and grow their experience.
Other factors are in play. The new business capabilities I focus on are driving the transformation of business models, at times quite radically. The CIO who can understand the core drivers here, and articulate them effectively with her/his colleagues, helping them shape and deliver business change plans, is a CIO building that broader business leadership experience required to potentially take on a CEO role.
The ICT vendor landscape is transforming equally radically, with a flourish of innovative younger ventures bringing transformational ICT-enabled services to be exploited. These require business partnership far more often than technical partnership – once again challenging the contemporary CIO to operate as a business person, not a techie!
And in these transforming functional and business environments, the CIO needs to be able to shape and manage cultural change, while also leading the (likely extensive) skills re-positioning of her/his team(s).
So these new generation CIOs are very much in the business of business transformation – and are thus in the process of being transformed themselves! Some will undoubtedly now move on into CEO roles – and do so successfully.