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CIO: the next CEO?

12 Jun 2020

Why boards and directors might look to the CIO when it comes to succession planning... and nine things that will turn the CIO into the powerhouse that cannot be ignored.

By Scott Perry

We’ve all heard the phrase: data is the new oil. That we’re on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution is not in question. Data is power, because knowledge is power: the power to see the world as it really is and act smarter as a result. There’s just the small matter of extracting it, that data, and doing something useful with it. And this has proved difficult and expensive in its early stages, and many businesses have found the prospect of adapting and advancing a daunting one. But it’s on this field that futures are being played out, where companies and individuals will either fall or rise. How well and how fast you act will most likely determine where you end up. And one corporate player stands to gain (or lose) most from this transition: the CIO. Can he/she step up? 

We say ‘CIO’. For some, of course, this may be the CTO, as the nomenclature varies between organizations and regions: here at Dun & Bradstreet, for example, we have no official CIO, but our CTO plays a CIO-type role. For others it’s a CDO, where the D can be Data or Digital. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the broadly accepted Chief Information Officer as the most senior operator. Information is what this is all about... though even here for some the I stands for Innovation. So many names and nuances – a sign of the pace of change. 

Future kings & Queens

Because the CIO role is changing almost as fast as the tech is changing round it. All eyes are on them.  Because the CIO has the keys to the information, they have the keys to the kingdom, the strategy, the future. At the very least the successful modern CIO will be a kind of king – or queen – maker (or protector) for a whole raft of CEOs. But in all likelihood the changed role sets them up to be future kings/queens in their own right. 

As a data provider, Dun & Bradstreet is interacting with CIOs regularly, so we’re acutely aware of the landscape shifting before us. It is in our interests to understand this CIO role profoundly, to better help our own clients use data to make smarter decisions. We’ve carried out extensive interviews with a number of high-ranking global and cross border CIOs – themselves advising CIOs in turn – together with leading consultants that do the same, to put together some deep insights into how CIOs can adapt to change and emerge as leaders. And their companies, too. Nine insights on how to become the new powerhouse. The article is split into two parts:

1) Creating the mindset
2) Nailing the tech 

1. Get a "create tomorrow" mindset

You’ll need to win many people over. Start with yourself. Your mindset drives everything. Be positive. Be entrepreneurial. Relish change, because change will come regardless. Lean in. Be smart about risk, but do not be afraid of it, because the biggest risk is to do nothing. Seek out meaningful transformation, because the companies that master the art of the possible, that take on the challenges that others shy away from, will be the winners. You’re going to play a part in creating tomorrow. Believe in your capability to make it happen, because that belief will be your greatest ally.

“If you look at the CIO persona, you’ve got a range of personalities,” says Oliver McKenna, CTO Northern Europe of Workday. “On the left, say, you have people more focused on the risk management, more cautious, controlling, unsure of the future. On the right: more adventurous, entrepreneurial, more blue sky. And there are all grades in between. The people on this right side of the picture have a great opportunity in these times, and when I’m asked, move in that direction is the advice I give. All through my career, when I had that mindset, that’s when I was at my most effective. You’ve got to be a leader, it’s absolutely critical. The companies that are winning are entrepreneurial.”

2. Know the potential

Belief will be in much greater supply when you know what is possible. All CIOs are at different stages of a journey, but if you talk to tech consultants advising the C-suite, or leading CIOs whose role is to advise client CIOs, the message quickly becomes clear: the level of technical knowledge with executives, including the CIO, is frequently astonishingly poor. This is an opportunity, and there is still time. It’s your job to know what’s out there. Technology will drive strategic decisions, so it’s on you to know the technology. Read books. Read more books. Restructure your time and workload to allow time to learn. Delegate. Get someone trusted on day-to-day ops. Go to seminars. Surround yourself with knowledge-seekers, and allow yourself the luxury of bringing in independent expert advice, because the field is so huge, and it’s a full-time job on its own to keep up. If you think you know how much data can do for you, think again.

“For me, the whole thing started with Watson winning Jeopardy,” says Dave Pearson, CIO of SYKES. “Then I started reading, twenty books on AI, quantum mechanics, futuristic stuff, there’s some amazing material out there. I started delegating. I got a director of research and development. I knew some of it would go fast, some slow, but I saw immediately that if you don’t start, you’re toast.”

3. Evangelise

The best CIOs are enthusiasts. They’re salesmen and politicians and teachers all rolled into one. Why? Because this is not a job you can carry out alone. You need buy-in and take-up. You need cover for risks and wrong turns. You need advocates. Most of all you need collaborators right across the business if you’re to succeed. Starting with your CEO. Your relationship is fundamental. You need the CEO to provide the air cover and the restructuring so you can help shape the future of the business. They, most probably, will need you to help them stay in their job, or keep the business alive. Between you, make it part of every team member’s job to set aside more time for inspiration and education, so that people work with you, not against you. Make them excited for it. Share what you learn. IT cannot be an island in the organization. The CIO must be the best friend of all the line managers, and right down to end users. Take it on yourself to understand what they do. And persist. Light fires and light them again.

“It all starts and ends with your people,” says Marcell Vollmer, chief innovation officer of Celonis. “You can implement a beautiful software system – there are a lot of them out there –  you think you are successful, you might do it in record time, you might get IT and all the business people aligned, but if the people supposed to work with it don’t pick it up, what have you achieved? Nothing. All life is about sales, and this is no different. The greatest CIOs understand their impact at the employee level, but can see the bigger holistic level of business models. You have to talk to people.”

4. Build a company-wide vision

The speed of change means five-year plans are close to obsolete. Strategists these days look to adaptability. They think in three horizons: present, two-three years, and 10 years. Horizon one will be disrupted anyway, so do it yourself. The goal is to constantly put yourself in the best position to morph: long term survivors cannibalize themselves. Somehow, you have to make space in the present to start becoming the company you want to be in ten years. In all likelihood, the company you end up becoming will be very different from what you imagined. That’s not important: what matters is nurturing your ability to adapt.

How to imagine yourselves in ten years? Brainstorm in cross-functional groups. Regularly. Start wide. Exclude nothing. Ask ‘what if?’, again and again and again. Bring in data experts, consultants, even sci-fi authors, anything to stimulate the imagination. Think sideways, think on to secondary effects. If no one drives cars, what does that mean for building and town planning? It’s not a five-year plan, it’s a mentality that you seek. You don’t have to see the destination, no one can. But you do need people who you know will spot the opportunities when they come. So, that means employ well, surrounding yourself with curious people, people excited about change and disruption.

“So many boards don’t get the pace of change,” says CEO of Emergence and founder of Symphony, David Poole. “Traditional incremental thinking isn’t going to be fast enough, you’ll get overtaken by the exponential potential in the market. The shift in mindset starts with you. The CIO has to move the business to think exponentially through technology. Lift your head out of the quarterly cycle. Work out the long-term vision, invest in projects that move you in that direction. If any technology investment isn’t contributing to that vision, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

5. Focus on the customer journey

The technology landscape is vast, too vast to take as a starting point. So, be smart in choosing the projects you develop. Pick your battles. Start with what you know. Look at the customer journey. Look at your internal pain points. Create cross-functional groups to understand not only what is going to create value, but what is practical and realizable. Later you’ll be asking these people to buy in to the vision, and the best way to do that is the engage them in constructing it.

“AI tools, machine learning... so many things now are becoming commoditized,” says Magnus Tjerneld, CEO of MissionPoint AB, “Which means you’re no longer forced to build something huge, you don’t have to rebuild your whole system. You chip away at it, change a piece at a time, based on things that are relevant to you. We’re working with one of Sweden’s largest cinema companies, who took their booking handling onto a Cloud based platform: scalable, fast, lower maintenance, automized, pay for the capacity as you need it. But this began a) with a pain point: inefficiency – too many people were paid a lot to keep green lights on and b) knowledge of our options. It was a focused project. You can build your own stack of microservices around focused needs. The great thing, then, is that you control it, and if the pieces are strategic, you control more still.”

Dun & Bradstreet’s new risk & credit product suite ‘RiskGuardian Suite’ has reached its current level of sophistication through identifying clear opportunities to improve the customer journey – for our clients and for their customers ­– and building our strategy around that. We knew that our clients were losing customers and sales because of the time their existing methods took to verify their creditworthiness... long enough for the customer to go elsewhere. This lengthy credit check process was also costing them in manpower. On top of this they were losing revenue because of its accuracy. We were able to use data to show that they were refusing credit more often than they needed to, with a big impact on the bottom line. Thirdly, many of these clients were operating cross-border. There was a demand for a Europe-wide solution. Our vision was for an instant decision on credit that improved the customer experience, and increased revenue through better insight, in any country in Europe. That became our strategy. We worked across functions, uniting the efforts of sales, product, IT and data teams. A huge effort in terms of labelling and ontology. But it all started with putting ourselves in the shoes of a customer requesting credit. “What if...” we asked ourselves, “They got an instant reply?”

And now they do.

Read Part 2 of this serie of articles