6 “Romantic” Qualities of Tomorrow’s CIO (And, In Fact, Any Leader)
Aspiring to lead their company’s digital transformation, CIOs often get bogged down by the demands of day-to-day business. If they want to strengthen IT as a strategic function that has a seat at the table, then they must lead and not just serve. They must move from information to imagination. But how?
Being a business-savvy technology strategist in addition to being a technology expert is a good start, but there’s another, often underrated dimension: I call it the “romantic” side of business. Business and romance? You may shudder at first at the sheer thought of such an unholy marriage. And the last department you can ever imagine “romanticizing” is IT, right? But wait, not so fast. Certain “romantic qualities” may indeed be beneficial for tomorrow’s CIOs and their organizations—and in fact every technology-savvy leader. Here are six of them:
- Feel more and show it: Romantics believe emotion eats reason for breakfast. Similarly, smart CIOs know their success not only hinges on connectivity, but connection. They must not only be communication enablers, but also excellent, empathetic communicators. They can’t solely rely on being reliable, but also on establishing meaningful relationships with their colleagues. This will help them overcome the perception that IT is just a “service” that checks off helpdesk tickets when things are broken. It’s the check-ins when things areworking, the casual chat in the cafeteria, the occasional “phone-call-without-agenda,” that build good will and foster the impression that there are real, caring human beings between all the machines in the neon-lit server room. And when there’s a real crisis and the system is down, express how bad youfeel instead of just the usual “we will fix it asap” boilerplate response. Show passion, not just professionalism. You’d be surprised how much people care—if you do.
- Give more than you take: If romantics believe something is the right thing to do, they are happy to transcend the principles of tit-for-tat in favor of pure giving. A CIO of an airline once told me, “First we need to cover the basics, then we can innovate and do all the fun stuff.” But this is a false dichotomy. Effective CIOs do both and find ways to make one work for the other. At Frog Design, CIO Christian Schluender managed all systems and built an entire asset management system inhouse, but also produced a series of internal videos that poked fun at the IT team and quickly went viral among employees. Produced on a shoestring, the videos were effective in showcasing IT’s creative prowess—which was paramount to being accepted as equals in a design firm. This may serve as an important reminder for IT teams across industries: excellence does not only come from over-delivery, but often just from generosity—from those casual gifts, those irreverent “hacks” that make our lives at work more delightful. There is no reason why we shouldn’t expect them from IT.
- Create beauty: Romantics appreciate the beauty inherent in the most mundane objects and experiences. And seriously, why must the ever-so-functional business be immune to aesthetical pleasures? CIOs can bring together the corporation (arguably the most powerful organization of our time) and technology (arguably the most powerful tool of our time) to not only create solutions to problems that meet our need for convenience and comfort, but also conjure up elegance and yes, even magic. IT is a product-builder, after all, and the principles of state-of-the-art user experiences apply to every database, mobile app, and microsite that it builds and distributes. CIOs should make top-notch UI designers an integral part of their team. Steve Jobs famously insisted on beautiful (invisible) interiors in every device Apple shipped. Likewise, CIOs can create beauty from the inside and use the backbones of their organization to shape its soul.
- Build things that don’t last: Romance lies in the elusive, fleeting moments that disrupt our daily lives with unexpected delight. In other words: Romantic is what doesn’t last. Just a few years ago, ephemerality would have been anathema to CIOs. Not anymore. Formerly rewarded for building things that last, IT now needs to become an expert in building things that don’t. As innovation and go-to-market cycles accelerate, a companies’ systems and infrastructure must become more nimble and allow for on-the-fly adjustments and ad-hoc reconfigurations. “Super-flexibility” is the buzzword of the day, describing a culture that is designed to facilitate the rapid flow of information within highly adaptive, fluid organizations that instantly adjust to ever-evolving external and internal circumstances. Quick fixes are the new permanent. Like romantics, CIOs are “shapeshifters” who sacrifice consistency for agility, and are quick to give up policies should they stifle entrepreneurship and creativity.
- Lose control: The trend toward software-as-a-service and open-source may uncalcify legacy IT infrastructure, but it also means giving up control. With theconsumerization of IT and social technologies spawning transparency and democratization, IT departments are no longer the gatekeepers. Instead of upholding rigid standards, CIOs must now act as concierges, curators, or even tastemakers, tasked with providing their colleagues the best access to the best technology available— inside and outside of their organization. While serving as the CTO of the World Economic Forum, Brian Behlendorf led the venerable institution to embracing an open data strategy, and the CIO of the city of Palo Alto, Jonathan Reichental, is widely acclaimed for its use of “civic hackathons” and crowdsourcing in his mission to “build a new operating system for government in the 21st century.” In best romantic tradition, these CIOs know that losing control can present new, richer opportunities. It is where the exciting stuff happens.
- Transcend the here and now: In the cracks of the empirical, information-based reality, romantics find the seeds of tomorrow. They can see the world not as it is, but as it could be. CIOs, too, have the opportunity to not just be safeguards of the doable, but apostles of the possible. Only if CIOs risk being fools will they be taken seriously. With their heads in the cloud and their feet on the ground, they must use technology not just as reality check, but as crystal ball. At its heart, the quest for a better future—in other words, “innovation”— is a romantic pursuit. Stuart Evans, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who helped conduct a recent survey among Fortune 500 CIOs, believes that “CIOs are leading the transformation toward a digital enterprise. This effort requires the CIO to bring together cross-functional business units by providing a ‘romantic’ vision for re-invention.” Patrick Naef, award-winning CIO of Emirates Airlines, is using IT to reinvent travel, including an Innovation Lab in Dubai and a whole host of initiatives that are designed to restore the romance of air travel through highly data-driven personalized customer experiences.
Stuart Evans told me that “In the future, many of the CIO’s skills and capabilities will be needed in CEO’s and Board directors.” Besides the grasp of technology, perhaps the CIO can indeed pave the way for more business leaders to become “Business Romantics” and usher in a new generation of companies that don’t make us check our hearts and our dreams when we log on.
More than ever, amid hyper-connectivity, big data, and the quantification of everything, we crave experiences that honor our unpredictable, inconsistent, and wondrous selves: IT is uniquely positioned to deliver them.
This post first appeared on Linkedin.com
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