Kathy Gibson reports from Gartner Symposium in Cape Town – As digital transformation gains momentum, CIOs need to take on a role in the C-suite that is equal to their contemporaries in other disciplines.

Gartner analyst Lee Weldon points out that most CIOs have successfully negotiated their way out of the at-risk category where they were just a few years ago, past the transactional CIO era and into the realm of the partner CIO.

“As partner CIOs, they are building a closer relationship between themselves and their colleagues in the business. They have moved from being a supplier to working with the business to help to achieve what it needs to achieve,” Weldon says.

However, the world has moved on, and CIOs need to do so as well. “While it was a great achievement to have reached the point of partner CIO, it’s not the end game. There is another level,” says Weldon.

“The problem with being a partner with the business implies that we are not the business.”

CIOs now need to strive to become a trusted ally, a strategic leader in information and technology.

“The trick is that when you move into digitalisation, there  is a new expectation for CIOs,” says Weldon. “And this is where we are seeing CIOs having to make this final push to becoming a trusted ally.”

Research shows that 25% of CIOs are already trusted allies and have a seat at the executive table. “There is a key difference to having a seat at the executive table, and sitting at the executive table,” Weldon says. “Having a seat at the table means you are one of the decision-makers.”

This is important, he adds, because digitalisation means technology has moved to the centre of the organisation, to the core of the business mission, with the whole organisation concerned about it. “And the CIO is not passively thinking about technology, but actively bringing it into the conversation.”

Weldon explains that there is still a big disconnect between what the CIO can deliver, and the understanding from their C-level peers. In fact, this is one of the biggest inhibiting factors that hold CIOs back from delivering the value they can.

Interestingly, research reveals that the barriers that other C-suite leaders have are almost the same as those faced by CIOs “So all CxO executives struggle with the same things.”

To try to understand what makes a successful member of the C-suite, Gartner put together the attributes of an effective C-suite peer.

They wear two hats – as an enterprise-wide leader, and as the head of their own discipline. They also have a unique and highly valued perspective that they bring to the table.

“And they are also able to take that unique perspective and connect it to the bigger picture – to make sure it fits into what everyone else is discussing.”

They develop strong relationships with their peers, so they can get things done. “And they actually invest a lot of time into those relationships.”

Other attributes include that they are often used as a public face for the enterprise; they try to think in an entrepreneurial way; and they tend to speak in a common voice – once decisions are made they will represent them outwards.

They tend not to be in the same position for decades – most stay in their role for about five years.

C-suite leaders also spent about 75% of their time acting in an enterprise leadership role, with only 25% spent on their functional leadership.

This means they are gaining perspective influence, collaboration, strategy and leadership. “So there is something they all have in common that is about the wider enterprise-wide perspective.”

The reality for most CIOs is different in many respects – except in the case of the trusted ally CIO.

Trusted ally CIOs tend to have a history of working in the business , in customer facing roles, as well as an IT background.

These individuals are more likely to be newer to the enterprise, and 54% of them have held a CIO role in another enterprise.

In the journey to becoming a trusted ally CIO, there is a big step to going from partner CIO to trusted ally – and it’s often easier to enter a new company at the trusted ally level.

They also tend to have had the same tenure as other C-suite peers, and have been in the CIO role for one to five years. About half would continue as a CIO in their next role, but the others would want to move into a business role either in the existing enterprise or in a new enterprise.

Trusted ally CIOs do things differently, and in particular are more likely to have pushed for bimodal in IT as well as in the business.

They are less likely to consider ERP as a top priority (16%) compared to transaction CIOs (29%).

Trusted ally CIOs tend to have a capacity or willingness to change as a much higher barrier compared to other CIOs.

They are also much more likely to wear other hats within the enterprise, such as digital or innovation leadership. “They are more likely to take on other roles in addition to technology.”

In getting things done, trusted ally CIOs are more likely to work with a range of suppliers and partners, and this includes midrange or startup suppliers.

They would typically have a more aggressive view towards analytics and business intelligence, so they will be constantly hungry for more people coming into the enterprise, And this means they will invest more in developing talent and acquiring more young talent.

“And it’s not just about developing talent within the department, but investing in themselves as well – so they would spend more time in personal development,” Weldon explains.

Trusted ally CIOs come a lot closer to other C-suite leaders in terms of time spent in different roles, with 61% of their time on enterprise leadership and 39% on functional leadership.

They would be engaging more in gaining perspective, influence, collaboration, strategy and leadership.

So how would a partner CIO take the step to becoming a trusted ally CIO? Gartner asked trusted ally CIOs how they made the move.

The first step, says Weldon, is that the IT house has to be in order – credibility as a leader is an essential attribute.

“While the house needs to be in order, the way trusted ally CIOs have done this is by investing heavily in a cast of supporting character who can deliver the day-to-day organisation and success.”

They will, in general, have put in place an office of the CI – a team that looks after the cross-functional management capabilities.

They would also invest in building up a powerful IT leadership team that is empowered to solve problems or conflicts. And they are increasingly putting in place someone to manage the day-to-day operations of the IT department.

“This means the IT department can deliver what it needs to deliver, and increases the CIO’s credibility,” Weldon says.

The next thing that trusted ally CIOs do is craft and communicate their unique, personal message.

To do this, and ensure they are investing time and attention on it, could be done in a number of ways. They could use crowdsourcing to gain unique insights; taking time to build up their own networks that reach beyond their own enterprise and their own industry.

“So CIOs that are out there, studying what they can learn, are honing their own perspectives,” Weldon says.

Trusted ally CIOs hone their own insights from their personal networks, they get insights from data and from pilots, as well as analogies from other industries and broader technology trends.

The next step would be to measure and communicate their own business impact. CIOs are typically measured on their activities when they should really be measured on the business outcomes they impact the most.

Trusted ally CIOs need to invest time and attention in their relationships with their peers. Weldon recommends that CIOs aim to build powerful, tried relationships that are stable, innovative and scalable.

“It’s also about the scope of perspective that you have,” Weldon says. They need to tap into wider resource pools through influence and orchestration. “It’s not just about how many data scientists I need – but, where are the data scientists within the organisation and how can I tap into them?”

The last point is around leadership style and recognising that we are in a time of uncertainty. Trusted ally CIOs are able to communicate direction on narratives and stories, focusing on clarity rather than certainty.

“Be very clear about where you are going, but be very flexible about how you get there,” Weldon says.