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CIO Podcast: Best time in years to be a CIO



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The CIO career is on a positive trajectory and has never been more relevant. Analysing the career changes that took place in 2017 former CIO Richard Sykes, now a board level advisor and executive coach Catherine Stagg-Macey tell the Horizon CIO Podcast that the CIO role is in good health and heading towards a bright horizon.  

As this title reported last week there was a 30% increase in CIO role changes in 2017, despite the national economy facing some major challenges.

“I think IT is growing up from ugly duckling to beautiful swan,” Stagg-Macey tells the CIO podcast. Adding the development is due to “business recognises how important IT is…We have moved from service provider to something much more strategic. The CIOs are not the IT manager that lived in the basement and managed a few IT geeks with a bit of pizza, these are business leaders with technology skill”

“If you look across boards they are far more tech literate now, as it is in their lives and in the way they work and they are more open to a CIO that can come at them and talk with them,” Sykes, who was Vice President of IT for ICI for much of 1990s says. Analysing the 44 role changes and the archive of news stories on the Horizon CIO podcast site, Sykes observes: “The CIOs that are moving on, none of them are moving on because they have been booted out, they are moving on because they sense new opportunities, growth in the market and a sense that the people coming along behind them are capable. So it is a positive move and it is broadening and bringing new skills to bear.”

“They are experienced, they can act as a bridge back into the IT department, they have good business understanding and an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Stagg-Macey of the cadre of CIO securing a new role. “And they have good story telling skills to work at the board level, it is a different kind of person to what we were looking at 10 years ago. Ten years ago you were looking at someone who was a great integrator that could upgrade the legacy systems and get some cost savings. Now you are looking at someone who is an innovator, who can bring some changes to the board,” the Belgrave Street coach says.

“You are also looking for someone who is a good communicator outwards, when I started in IT we were so inward looking. Now we are talking about people who have good networking skills, have connections in the startup and VC world, so it is a rich and broader type of role,” Stagg-Macey says. Sykes agrees and adds that the leading CIOs mix time on the vendor bench, both with majors, as Tim Grieveson did and with challenger firms as new Addison Lee CIO Ian Cohen did and former easyJet CIO Trevor Didcock is currently doing.  

New ventures

Both advisors to the CIO community see an increasing importance of CIOs developing relationships with the investment communities.  Sykes believes that Ian Cohen, Addison Lee and their investors Carlyle Group were all attracted to each other for the knowledge they can share. In moving to Addison Lee Cohen joins a growing number of CIOs including David Jack who develop their careers with strong relationships with investors.

‘The CIO’s stakeholder map is much more diverse than your line manager and your team. Cohen and Jack are great examples of navigating that. We have moved from a powerbase of beat the supplier up for the best deal to a partnership.  People would rather be in a relationship for a longer time, rather than a difficult procurement process,” Stagg-Macey says.  

This CIO Editor is seeing CIOs bake innovation into contracts, as partners deliver improvements in products and processes so the contracts extend and the relationship jointly deepens.

“If you go back five years ago, we had the nature of the top 10 CIOs became very different,” Sykes says. Former heavyweight CIOs who had managed major technology estates were overtaken not by a failing in their ability, but a “change in the landscape”.

2017 also saw an increase in CIOs moving across different vertical markets, all three observers believe. Sykes says this is again another positive development for the CIO community. “Boards are beginning to realise there are benefits of bringing in a CIO who has experience of other verticals and insights that are very relevant to them. People move from one vertical to another because of the skills they bring.

“There is a strong tendency on the customer focus, but there is also, how do you keep the internal processes modernised and how do you help the management team do that,” Sykes says of another benefit these CIOs are bringing to their organisation. “You half wonder with a company that is in the news a lot at the moment who had bought a lot of companies and had not integrated them all and it became too late to control,” he says of the need for CIOs to run two competing challenges in today’s organisation.

Stagg-Macey recalls how Ian Cohen told the Horizon CIO Podcast’s Innovation Leadership Summit of the importance to be responsive to your customers and not to become confused by a desire to be the Uber of their sector.

“There is a danger of ‘lets be like Uber’ and the Silicon Valley has a lot to answer for in terms of showing us what technology is capable of. This is where the gravitas of the leading CIO comes in, when the board says why are we not like Uber or Monzo bank. A strong CIO can manage the expectations,” she says.

Insuring the future

General insurance organisations were some of the most active in 2017 in hiring or promoting CIOs. With disruptors like Neos in the UK and Lemonade in the US, is the hiring spree a sign that the insurance sector realises it needs great technology leaders to head off the challenge?

“The innovators are pecking off the easier parts of the insurance process,” Stagg-Macey says, something COO of house and car insurance firm LV= Richard Warner told the Horizon CIO podcast.  Stagg-Macey says insurance CIOs will face the greatest challenge when it comes to managing stakeholders who desire a Monzo style digital service and conveniently forget about the legacy systems that operate their businesses. “That is not a get out of jail free card though,” she warns the sector.

“When I was in the business of analysing insurance technology, the CIOs from outside of insurance were the most interested in different technologies and they came in without any expectations and the London insurance market has been its own worst enemy,” she says.

Retail too opened its arms to a wider range of CIOs. “Retail is waking up, and do not underestimate how much it is going to have to continue to wake up,” Sykes says.  “At the more extreme we have the news of Amazon opening its first shop with no checkout, but come close to home the whole food chain is beginning to get more specialist and startup. So I think the challenge the retailers face is going to continue to grow,” the Cloud Industry Forum chair says.

Also facing a major challenge is those CIOs in health and the public sector. Arguably the most significant public sector move of 2017 was Richard Corbridge returning to the NHS from a national role in Ireland. Sykes and Stagg-Macey believe Corbridge and all his CIO peers in health face a major challenge, but as this Editor said at the end of 2017, the calibre of CIO in healthcare has never been better.

“My forecast would be in five years time we will see the growth of the CIO into the CEO role and we will not be surprised. We are beginning to see CIOs that have the capabilities and the impact to rise and become CEOs. They will be in smaller firms and will take startups forward and they have the skills to lead a board,”

“I wish him great luck with great sympathy and respect and know that it is one hell of a challenge and the NHS is going to continue to have challenges going forward,” Sykes says.

CDOs and CEOs

Some analyst houses claimed that by 2018 the chief digital officer (CDO) would have replaced the CIO as the most senior technology leader. That has not come to pass and the majority of the role changes reported on by the Horizon CIO podcast were CIO, with an increase in CTO roles. There is of course always one exception to the rule and that is Richard Cross, who exclusively revealed to this title his new CDO role at advertising giants Clear Channel in an interview late last year.

“CDO is just a place holder whilst the board gets its head around how dependent they are on technology,” Stagg-Macey says.  “We once had titles like head of internet and we didn’t know what they did and they had no KPIs and they were an anathema. Five years ago I said CDO was redundant.”

The appointment of CIO Sarah Wilkinson as CEO of NHS Digital in April 2017 caused a flurry of claims about CIOs becoming CEOs and this Editor believes that CIOs will become CEOs of technology organisations, but that we are unlikely to see a CIO become the CEO of a FTSE 100 business. There are those that still claim Tesco’s promotion of Philip Clarke to CEO was a CIO becoming a CEO, but as Sykes contested on this podcast and in former columns, that is not the case. Sykes believes the development of the startup and scale-up technology organisations will see more CIOs move into CEO roles:

“My forecast would be in five years time we will see the growth of the CIO into the CEO role and we will not be surprised. We are beginning to see CIOs that have the capabilities and the impact to rise and become CEOs. They will be in smaller firms and will take startups forward and they have the skills to lead a board,” Sykes says.

During 2017 a number of deputies stepped up to the CIO role, Nigel Watson succeeded James Robbins at Northumbrian Water, Phil Scully moved up at Costa Coffee and John Chasty became CIO at LV= as Richard Warner became COO. These developments are a testament to the CIOs they have replaced, who have all clearly prepared their succession very well.  

“One of your key responsibilities is to develop a succession plan,” Stagg-Macey says of the CIO role. “Lets acknowledge the fear, I realised I had hired someone who will succeed me and part of succession planning is hiring people more capable than you and to encourage them. The courage that takes is considerable.”

Get advice from our experts:

Catherine Stagg-Macey at Belgrave Street

Dr Richard Sykes

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