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Changing Skills of Technology and Digital leaders-" What the CEO Needs from Technology Leaders"

By Lachlan Wark, Executive Search and Assessment Consultant, Russell Reynolds Associates

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Lachlan Wark, Executive Search and Assessment Consultant, Russell Reynolds Associates

Every day we talk to people in Asia Pacific who either run the technology/digital function or have it report in to them. For the CIO, CTO or CDO they have been operating in a period of high-paced change:  the cosumerisation of IT, the changing vendor landscape and consumption models, the Internet of Things, the demand for an analytics capability, the changing face of cyber security and the rise of the Digital function are just some of the common themes.  What has changed dramatically in the past year is that all of these themes have become front of mind for the CEO and Executive Team and they are unhappy with the responses they are getting from their technology leaders. They are coming to Russell Reynolds Associates and asking us for a different type of leader, one who can help them transform their business.

Almost every CIO we speak to claims that they are all about “change and transformation not BAU and run” and yet these are exactly the people that the CEO or CFO wants to replace.  Ironically, most CIO’s can claim to have transformed their business if they have been there long enough. If one looks at the advent of the Internet, the Y2K challenge, the implementation of large package software, the development of apps and deployment of end user technologies; all of these things have changed the way companies operate and because the CIO has deployed them, they can claim to "have changed the way we do business". The reality is that well over half of the people we speak to are not truly disruptive or transformationaland are ill equipped for the challenges being asked of them by C-Suite executives.

"The most highly valued skills have changed from technical skill and execution to communication, partnering, influencing and team leadership"

Given how rapidly businesses (and governments!) are changing the way that they operate and the fact that the most agile and flexible candidates often come from start-ups or greenfield digital businesses (which almost by definition lack scale, experience and maturity) more and more of our clients are asking us to figure out the underlying psyche that makes a great transformative leader.

Russell Reynolds Associates has done proprietary psychometric research to answer this question and the results were startling. We selected transformative technology/digital leaders and assessed their preferred working style and behaviours versus other senior executives. They were one of the most distinctive cohorts we have studied and were statistically significantly different in five key areas. Unsurprisingly they are more innovative and disruptive than traditional leaders, but just as importantly, they have a boldness of leadership, adroitness in social situations and a determination about them that is greater than their peers. These are leaders who will challenge the status quo, think outside the box, cut through bureaucracy, take initiative and test the limits and do so with great social confidence, adaptability, resilience and determination. They will be just as comfortable replacing a core system as they will be doing rapid iterations of minimum viable product, they will think platforms and ecosystems and “customer in” and “partner in” rather than “company out”.

These individuals have landed in roles over the past year like: CIO of an education business doing core systems transformation as well as product innovation; the CEO of the Australian Federal Government’s Digital Transformation Office making government services simpler, clearer and faster; the Chief Digital Officer for one of Asia’s largest retailers creating a true omni-channel experience and; the CTO for a FinTech business replatforming the technology while innovating the offering. They come from all different industries, geographies, genders and ethnicities but their makeup is very similar. Of the people who say, "I'm the transformation type", very few actually fit the bill.

Industry pundits often talk about the evolution of the CIO role. From its first incarnation in the 1970s as an adjunct to the Finance team through to today, the CIO has morphed from project manager to optimizer and then transformer. The most highly valued skills have changed from technical skill and execution to communication, partnering, influencing and team leadership.  We would argue that another set of demands are being placed on our most senior technology and digital leaders – agility, flexibility, innovation, disruption – and they must adapt to survive and thrive.

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