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CIO advisor Tim Crawford offers four steps to true business acumen.

The transformational CIO: The art of business collaboration

CIO advisor Tim Crawford offers four steps to true business acumen for today’s CIO.

18 August 2016
The bottom line

WHAT: The transformational CIO needs to think beyond IT and develop a business-first mind-set.

WHY: The digitally driven and customer-focused marketplace requires CIOs to navigate the different priorities of IT and the business.

HOW: CIOs must master every facet of the business and learn to think beyond technology.

MORE: Read more about the collision between IT and business at HPE Business Insights.

Kristin Burnham, contributing writer

An up-and-coming breed of business leader who just happens to be responsible for IT, the transformational CIO is rare—a striking departure from the traditional, tech-focused CIO. Yet businesses need IT leaders who understand the impact of fast-changing technology on business goals, particularly in a digitally driven, customer-focused marketplace.

To be a CIO who helps the business transform into a digital leader, says former CIO Tim Crawford, traditional IT-smarts need to be matched with an understanding of the company's strategy. You need to understand how the company spends money, to look for opportunities to improve customer engagement and growth, and to focus more on business and data than the nuts and bolts of technology. Traditional CIOs, on the other hand, spend more time in the trenches of IT and less time talking business strategy with the C-suite, says Crawford, strategic advisor at AVOA.

Most IT leaders say they understand the shift toward making IT more business-relevant, he says. But often it's just lip service.

"There's this term that IT professionals use to describe themselves—that they are the 'change agents,'" Crawford says. "The sad irony is that IT can be one of the organizations that is most resistant to change. Very few organizations are truly headed toward having that transformational CIO lead the charge."

Navigating different agendas, goals, budget priorities, and communication styles within the business—while still leading IT—isn't easy for a CIO who rose through the IT ranks; it requires changes in both mind-set and skills. Crawford offers four ways to master the unique challenges to becoming the business-first, IT-second leader that organizations increasingly need.

1. Master the business

Transformational CIOs need to understand every facet of every business unit, Crawford says—everything from product development to customer demographics to marketing, and more.

"You need to know how all these components of the business interact with one another," he says. "You need to understand how tweaking something in one spot impacts the rest of the value chain."

Thinking in terms of business goals includes reframing IT's approach—making it about products and services rather than projects, he says. Abandoning the traditional project orientation lets you see IT's value in serving the customer, rather than in completing a list of discrete IT goals.

"Say you're upgrading to the latest version of Microsoft Exchange. Discuss how long it will run, what improvements you'll make over time, and when the next version of the product might launch," he says. "That small shift changes the way people think and talk; it changes the way IT starts to behave, which is incredibly important."

2. Talk business, not technology

Traditional CIOs live and breathe technology, but a transformational CIO must live and breathe business, Crawford says. This requires a shift in how you approach conversations and negotiations with other business leaders.

"At the end of the day, they really don't care about the technology," Crawford says. "What they care about is what a particular solution is going to do for them."

Pay careful attention to the vocabulary you use, he says. Adopt the language of business: talk revenue, savings, and customer engagement. "Test yourself: Are you able to have a conversation and not talk a lick about the technology? That's when you know you're getting it right."

3. Reframe whom you serve

Transformational CIOs need to shift their perception of whom they serve, Crawford says. Traditional CIOs and their IT teams serve the company's employees, while transformational CIOs serve the same customer that the business does.

"Your customer is the same customer that purchases the company's services or goods," Crawford says—not the employee. "That's an incredible shift. You're solving problems to meet the customer's needs. That shifts your focus to the value of the customer."

4. Remember: You are the business

It's common for traditional CIOs to separate IT from the business, Crawford says. Talking about us versus them is not a transformational approach, he says.

"Whenever you're talking about 'the business,' you're creating this separation that you are not part of the business, that you're part of IT," he says. "That mind-set affects not only how your IT teams view themselves—you're also telegraphing how others outside IT should think of you, too."

The transformational CIO needs to be a business leader first who happens to have responsibility for IT.


That perception is lethal to a CIO's relationship with non-IT peers, Crawford says. "The transformational CIO needs to be a business leader first who happens to have responsibility for IT. Change the mind-set to enact a behavioral shift. Remove all references in your conversations to 'the business,' because IT should be a business organization."

The transformed CIO

Becoming a key business stakeholder as a CIO isn't easy, Crawford says, but it can be done, and it must be done, both for the good of the business and for the CIO's career.

"If you start to understand these priorities, it will help you fit into the new culture," he says. "But it's not just about changing your culture and behavior and the way you talk—you need to influence how the other organizations evolve, too."

Read more about the collision between IT and business at HPE Business Insights.

Kristin Burnham is an award-winning technology journalist and editor with expertise in enterprise technologies, leadership, information security, and online privacy.

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