It Isn’t All About Tech

CIOs need a whole range of skills today, says Kevin Hoople, CIO of Lawson Products.

CIOs need to be more than just tech wizards these days.

So says Kevin Hoople, CIO of Lawson Products, a Chicago-based distributor of industrial maintenance and repair supplies. He spoke with StrategicCIO360 about what it takes to be a successful information chief now, the importance of good communication—and listening—skills, and how to handle a missed deadline.

What is most important to become a CIO today?

You need to have a passion for technology, strong business acumen and relationship management skills. Not one or two of these—all three. If you lack business acumen, you will obviously miss the mark in applying the right technology to your organization’s mission.

Use M&A as an example. Growth through acquisition is important to Lawson Products, as it is for many companies. Should you integrate the acquired business with existing systems or operate it separately? Are current systems a 90 percent fit resulting in some great synergies? Great! Or will you have to crowbar the acquired company onto current systems to make it work, resulting in unacceptable costs and loss of efficiency for everyone? You must understand the business fundamentals to assess the fit.

Relationships are key to any leadership role. You must be able to partner with your peers and vendors and you need to keep your team engaged.

You must have a genuine interest and curiosity in technology. You need this because you need at least a conceptual understanding of how various information technologies actually work. Without that, you will likely make a lot of mistakes in selecting vendors and partners suitable to the objectives.

The constant introduction of new information technologies that a CIO needs to sort through makes this all the more challenging. Some are fascinating but don’t really have an appropriate use case for your organization, some are not as exciting but have a lot of utility and offer great value. You also must watch out for those that will be dead in five years—perhaps because the market demand will be too small to support it or maybe a bigger IT provider will buy it out and later let it die.

What role do communication skills play in being a CIO?

Communication skills are key. There are many great technologists. However, if you can get ideas across clearly, concisely and appropriately to your audience, you will stand out and be the one who organization leaders will want to work with.   They don’t want to work with those that talk over their heads with too many IT acronyms and tech lingo.

Perhaps more important are listening skills. You won’t always be handed a clear problem statement. You will need to listen carefully to a description of a business situation to pick out the opportunity.

What advice do you have for managing missed deadlines?

Protect your credibility. IT projects are complicated. You won’t always make your target dates even with the best effort due to forces outside your control. However, put the effort into planning to make those missed dates the exception, not the rule.  Make sure the things you can control you do control.

Strong project management skills will give you a boost. Delivering on time shouldn’t always require drama and heroics. Careful planning and diligent execution can usually bring projects to completion in a less frantic way. However, it is difficult to coach your team appropriately if you don’t have the project management skills yourself.

Another tip is to break larger projects into smaller ones wherever possible. It is almost always easier to plan and complete smaller projects on schedule than large ones.

Finally, when you do miss a deadline, be transparent about the cause and share lessons learned. 

CIOs are expected to be good problem solvers. What tips do you have for CIOs to demonstrate strength in this area?

My best advice takes us back to listening and communication skills. Don’t just be an order taker that buys or builds what a business stakeholder asks for. Ask questions and listen carefully in order to expose the “why” behind the request. By taking the time to dig deeper you will often realize that a business problem has a root cause that can be better solved another way.

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