A company CIO has been tasked with launching a digital change programme. He is worried he lacks the expertise to lead it. What can be done to support him?

The Issue

The board of a customer-facing business expect the CIO to lead a major digital transformation because they view it as “about technology”.

But technology is only one aspect of it. It also impacts the customer experience and the way the business interacts with its suppliers and other stakeholders.

So the challenge is far more profound: it is a fundamental transformation of the entire business.

The organisation also has a vertical structure, so the CIO lacks a horizontal view of how the various elements of the business (product, customer service, etc) come together to deliver to customers.

Coming from a systems background, he is perceived as being a technical person and lacks strong relationships with other key executives in operations, marketing or customer experience roles.

Furthermore, he has not had any training in the sorts of leadership, change management or communication skills that will be required to make a success of the programme.

Finally, the CIO is already at full capacity. He is concerned that he has not been given additional resources and is worried he won’t be able to combine his day-to-day role with running the change programme.

How can the business support the CIO and equip him with the right tools to make a success of the programme? Does he need coaching, mentoring – both?

The Interventions

Chris Bevan

Interim transformation director, Transform Associates

It’s not surprising the CIO feels anxious. Not having led an enterprise-wide transformation before, why should he or his colleagues expect he can learn how to do it overnight? It’s essential he has support.

Transformational management is completely different from operational management so the CIO needs help from someone whose forte is change and not day-to-day operations, who understands the mechanics of transformation, and can coach him to make it a success.

In addition, however, this person will also need to have the scars and experience from having done this before. This isn’t a ‘nice-to-have’, it is essential.

The person would need to understand the environment necessary for the mechanisms of transformation to work and who has the hands-on experience to provide the support needed when the world starts throwing curve balls. Someone who can help him keep his eye on the destination, while appreciating that the way there may change.

This person would need to know how the ‘mechanics’ translate into a framework and understand what needs to be done to translate objectives into outcomes. They’d know how to give key stakeholders visibility of the programmes and how to demonstrate that resources are being used effectively.

With this support, the CIO can start to explore some other important issues with the board – not least the difference between leading a stable operation and leading through change and ambiguity.

He’d also be able to explain why it’s important to mitigate not just the operation and reputational risks, but the (very real) personal risks, too.

So, the CIO needs someone who can not only guide him on the interpersonal side and coach him to make a success of the programme, but who has also done this before. A multifaceted someone who can act as coach, guide and/or mentor as appropriate.


David Heron

Managing partner, WBMS

It sounds obvious, but it’s true nonetheless. Faced with major transformation programmes outside their comfort zone, organisations either acknowledge that they need help or they don’t. As seems to be the case here, a complicating factor is that most boards lack anyone with real IT / digital / CIO credibility.

So the board might believe that a CIO from a technical background can deliver a change programme, but the CIO knows otherwise – it’s really the blind leading the blind.

Assuming the CIO acknowledges the need for outside help, they have various options. They could just try to outsource the problem and ship in a big consultancy. But that isn’t only hugely expensive, there’s also no guarantee that it will deliver what’s required (indeed, as we so often see, applying a methodology without really changing the organisation that’s meant to implement it, simply doesn’t work).

Traditional coaching won’t help unless the coach happens to have hands-on digital transformation experience too.

What’s needed is a different approach. Rather than outsourcing the problem, what about ‘insourcing’ it and hiring a ‘player-coach’? Someone who has been there and done it and can be implanted on the inside to help the CIO and their team both think and do.

The coaching element would help the CIO to slow down and think more about how to deliver the end game rather than what needs to be done today operationally.

But this individual would also be a player – someone who’s delivered transformation before, who knows the issue and pitfalls. And who can work with the CIO and as part of the team to help them achieve their objectives as well as upskilling them so that they can move ahead in future on their own.

At the same time, they would need to influence and educate those who will be impacted by the outcome of the change, thus helping to improve the chances of success.

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