As it was Digital Leaders Week in June I thought I would share something I have been thinking a lot about lately – what does a modern Digital Leader look like. This was inspired by recent conversations with clients but also this blogpost from James Stewart about ‘Internet-era’ CTOs.
The most senior role for technology or ‘digital’ leadership is inconsistently defined; it can be the CTO, CIO, CDO, CDIO and many other permutations as the default ‘most senior’ position to do with data, networking, applications and devices. The trouble is, what was required of yesterday’s leader and today’s are fundamentally different.
Once upon a time they ran a service for the business; a cost centre, to be kept in check. It was considered a utility, and nobody in the business wanted or needed to know much about it. Their stuff needed just to work, and not cost too much.
The modern leader must still do all that, yet ‘transform’ the organisation at the same time, and, in many cases, take a place on the management team. Arguably, being a classic CIO (looking after the cables and pipes with a team hidden in the basement) and being the CDIO (thinking about cloud and AI with teams in full view using shiny Macs) require entirely different skills. If there is consensus on how to deal with this, it is to get an inspirational front-person to take the lead and sell the vision to the users and the Board and have a less high profile ‘doer’ to keep the lights on.
The leader has to help the Board turn the organisation into a digital powerhouse. That means exiting legacy things that slow the business down (data centres, old apps, data silos, etc), and building trophy digital services – and often co-designing entirely new services/revenue streams. Often, this new role is lonely on the board, as cohorts will see it as a traditional CIO rebadged – and still a service to be delivered within 1-2% of turnover. With the exception of internet-era businesses (ie new, and with revenue very overtly pinned to digital channels), this misunderstanding at board level is prevalent.
So finding a ‘good’ Digital Leader is fiendishly difficult. Many are too techy (and so lose the board). Many are not techy enough (so lose the tech staff, and fail on tech-based decisions). Many can’t balance risk/reward in new technologies. Many fail to convince the organisation to move forward. And, of course, everybody wants somebody who’s done it before with a portfolio flushed with success. So prices have gone crazy. And tenures are short. When these individuals move on, they boast outwardly of their success – whilst the company they are leaving say ‘yeah, but he/she promised to do this, this, and this – and never did’.
Paradoxically, as the role has moved onto the board, the fiefdom it oversees has become weakened: there is no central authority on digital. Arguably, the CEO/CFO is in the data governance seat – not the CIO. And look at the incursions… with a swipe of a company credit card, anyone from marketing or HR or sales can spin up a new digital thing to serve their needs – often without any permission from anybody in the digital/IT domain. Things are devolving fast – and that can cause problems.
The role (really only 10 years old, and very new indeed as a board role) has become a bit like that of CEO, in that good CEOs know they can’t do everything, and never try. So they have a manifesto: maybe five things, to get done in a three-year stint. So that is not a bad starting point for a Digital Leader.
Here is my Digital Leader wish list:
Originally published here.