The pandemic surge in technology investments—and the importance of tech leaders—created massive challenges, and opportunities, for CIOs, notes Mark Rees, chief technology officer at Xero, an accounting software company based in Wellington, New Zealand. Rees spoke with StrategicCIO360 about what’s possible today, how to make the most of it and the responsibilities that CIOs bear.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing CIOs today?
The responsibilities and moral obligations held by platform organizations have never been more poignant—and this will continue to be a challenge facing future tech leaders. Now more than ever, the structures we create influence the way we behave. It’s not necessarily what you build that matters most, but rather, how you do it. As tech leaders, we have a responsibility here. We need to encourage the right kind of behaviors to ensure we’re not implementing and building in bias.
The last few years have elevated the strategic role of tech leaders in an organization—but to stay there, we need to make sure we can communicate with all levels of the organization.
The last two years have been an incredible journey for technology leaders and their teams. In this time, we’ve witnessed one of the biggest surges in technology investment in history, whereby the world’s IT leaders spent more than their annual budget rise in the space of three months. In turn, technology leaders demonstrated significant value as they worked to accommodate unprecedented levels of new technology adoption across almost every industry and geography.
But while we may have helped our leaders and organizations through the worst of a global pandemic, it is what follows that needs our attention. That is, delivering on the promise of the new tools, programs, platforms and ways of working that we have invested in—and breaking down a lot of new jargon at all levels of the organization.
The changes stemming from record investment in, and adoption of, new technology, won’t necessarily be understood or accepted by all as quickly as they came into force. In other words, just because the technology is in place, doesn’t mean everyone is on board with it. There is now a significant opportunity for IT leaders to pave the way so all levels of the organization can reap the long-term benefits from the investments made in new technology—and it all comes down to effective communication.
Navigating the tech hype cycle with customers and fellow executives is critical. Whether it’s generative AI, NFTs or the metaverse, the challenge remains for tech leaders as to how we can make sense of the digital dilemmas presented by new technology and whether or not these dilemmas are worth the hype cycle that tends to follow them, from inflated expectations through to disillusionment and beyond.
How has the role of the CIO and tech leaders more broadly changed in recent years?
In recent years we have seen a clear and significant shift in working styles and the economic environment we operate within. Now more than ever, tech leaders are balancing risk with short-term reaction to the dynamic environment around us. This spans all areas of the job, from the workforce and focusing on lower attrition through to adapting leadership styles in an unpredictable environment.
The collaboration within a C-Suite can vary greatly between businesses, so how can a CIO ensure that fellow executives are routinely aligned on decisions relating to tech and innovation?
It seems that almost everyone has become a tech exec these days, so a key challenge for today’s tech leaders is to assert expertise at the right moment to ensure the value of technology is realized within the organization.
It can be hard at times to decide what to control—as technology is deeply embedded in most organizations—but in each case, trust, empathy and open mindedness are key to guiding the right outcomes for the business and your professional relationships.
Contrary to popular belief, tech leaders are more than just the custodians of technical knowledge in our organization—we also need to be skilled communicators. Our ability to listen, persuade and justify can be really powerful in many of the situations we manage day-to-day, and this is key to aligning decisions within our organization. In every case, it is especially important that we lead with empathy, have a strong understanding of who we’re speaking to, be human in our approach and consider our words carefully—and always explain the direct benefits to your stakeholders, i.e., what’s in it for them.
Another big part of aligning fellow executives is to focus on what matters rather than allowing yourself to get lost in controlling the small things. Having said that, a small decision can have big implications—so it’s important to strike the right balance and this comes from having the right structures in place and a deep connection with customers. I have long believed that operational excellence unlocks innovation.
Are there any tried-and-true methods and strategies for CIOs to deliver successful digital transformation initiatives within their organization?
While there is no one tried and true method for success, I have found incredible value comes from having a customer focus and finding ways to deliver value incrementally. Digital transformation initiatives can quickly become complex when you consider all that’s involved in delivering a five-year program. That is why it’s best to focus on the customer value you can generate quickly, while still having a clear plan and direction for where you want to go longer term.
Building simplicity into ways of working has also proven to be invaluable. This is the best antidote to complexity and the best way to improve the delivery of a network of teams. One way you can do this is by using a clear prioritization model that is focused on getting your most valuable work to customers as soon as you can. There is always much more work than we can possibly manage, so we must develop a structured approach for deciding what we should do first.
Unlocking the next phase of innovation and growth is a continual and iterative evolution. Every team depends on others to achieve their mission, so building mechanisms to surface and reconcile these dependencies is also key.