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Technology Officers

A Post-Crisis Role for CIOs: Coach

  • June 2020

As COVID-19 swept the globe, companies learned the true value of their technology leaders. Businesses were forced to move their operations from central locations into thousands of home offices, relying on teams led by Chief Information Officers to make that hurried transition happen. 

But as the pandemic wears on, CIOs find they are doing much more than keeping the computers running. Many sense a new opportunity for the role – one that evolves the position from toolbox to solutions provider. It’s a moment in time when CIOs are in the spotlight. 

Egon Zehnder gathered information officers for a series of three video conferences to hear how they were embracing this new reality and what they see for the future of the CIO role. Many of them see a new dimension to their work emerging: technology leader as coach. 

“We have been a big part of overcoming the biggest crisis in many of our working lives,” said one leader. That has changed the way the CIO is viewed by the larger organization, he said. “We can bring more assertiveness into every business discussion. We know what we are talking about. There is a good opportunity for us to build on that.” 

“You have the attention of the Board now,” agreed another. If other leaders in the company used to view the technology head as a “tool person” now that tone has changed, he said. “There is an opportunity in the new attention we have now.” 

In conversations, technology leaders identified areas in which the CIO/Coach could have the most impact. 

A Coach Can Push for Greater Agility

With the crisis response as a backdrop, CIOs can help organizations think more broadly about the value of agile thinking. The coaching role allows us to move on from simply providing solutions to fostering a broader discussion about agility, said one leader. “It is a fantastic opportunity.”

“I now have Board members calling me asking: how did you do that? How did you enable the collaboration? Why did it work so quickly and easily in this strange time?” said another. “We need to focus on these things and be sure we don’t lose them as we move forward. I don’t believe we will come back to our old processes—we need to look ahead and see how we move on. We need to take what we have achieved to become a more agile organization,” she said. 

A Coach Can Encourage Big Picture Thinking 

The pandemic pushed everyone into survival mode – hunkering down and worrying about health and family issues. Now, it’s important to help the organization raise its eyes and look forward. “We need to anticipate,” one leader said. The key will be to coach Boards and executive leadership to move from short term thinking into long-term thinking. The CIO has the chance to help the organization “see around corners,” he added. 

Some leaders said they are already getting support from CEOs to take this transformative approach. “I had a one-hour video call with my CEO to prepare him for a meeting and I used the opportunity to speak with him about the IT journey.” The CEO and tech leader discussed the ways advancement in IT issues could create a learning curve for the organization. But the CEO was ready to let the CIO lead. “He said: don’t be afraid because we will follow you. Go and drive IT to a higher maturity.” The larger organization will be pulled along, he said. 

A Coach Can Maintain Emotional Focus 

CIOs noted that the role of coach requires a level of interpersonal sensitivity and they talked about ways to embrace that reality. One leader reflected on the challenge of keeping teams on track in times of turmoil. “I’m thinking about how to keep people rallied around a purpose and objective. The world has changed and the purpose of what we need to do may have shifted. It’s difficult, he said, to pick up on what others may be thinking when you can’t all be together. “I’m listening a lot.”

What’s more, even coaches must be delicate about when and how to deliver advice. When coaching others to embrace digital transformation, it’s important to remember that so much has changed already. It is challenging, leaders said, to push for an era of continued change when so many are reeling from the impact of the pandemic. 

“I made a mistake when I started to talk about resilience,” said one. “I gave the impression that sooner or later we’ll be back to what we were before. But we now know the future will be different. We don’t know what that looks like. In this respect we can’t see the ground. The best we can do is to emphasize there will be change—though we don’t know the change.” 

In many ways, this calls for CIOs to deal with a lot of emotions. There is tension, they said, between the old ways of doing business and the new possibilities change has created. Part of the CIO/Coach job will be to manage that emotional turmoil and encourage the kind of open-minded view of technology that will allow new ideas to rise up and take hold. That’s not a simple task. “How do you teach yourself to let this evolution happen and encourage it but also allow people to get direction when they need to?” wondered one leader. “What do you have to give up?” 

To be sure, the advent of CIO-as-coach may take time to take root. Even though CIOs may be praised for what they accomplished during the pandemic, solidifying that leadership role after the crisis may take some work and patience. “I don’t think we can step up now and say: I’m the coach we all need now. We need to go slowly and see how the organization reacts,” said one leader. “People who were in charge before don’t like the idea that someone else is stepping in. We need to put the right teams together and try out new ways of leadership. We can’t change things by ourselves.” 

Still, the opportunity for CIOs can’t be ignored. The dramatic experience of moving global businesses into home offices highlighted the CIO role. It not only creates an opening for organizations but for CIOs themselves. Those who currently hold the position can step back from the crisis experience and consider: what does this mean for the role that I want to play in my company? 

“The question I pose to myself is: what kind of identity should I then adopt?” said one leader.  The CIO of the future should be tightly connected to the CEO, he said. The CIO should act as a change agent and mentor the company to embrace change. And finally, the CIO must have a “brave heart.” “We need to be brave and accurate. We need to provoke a little. If we don’t play this role, there is no one else in the organization to do it. People are recognizing us more now, so we can be more disruptive.” 

“We can find a new identity,” he added. One that can act as a coach to organizations facing a changed world. 

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