How should Chief Information Officers allocate time, resources, budget, and planning for 2021? One of the most world's most prominent CIO influencers shares his advice.

Peter High is an expert in business and information technology strategy and a trusted advisor to a wide array of business and tech executives ranging across Fortune 500 companies in various industries. 

In December of 2009, Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass published Peter’s book World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, which was named the third best IT-business book of 2009 by CIO Insight, and the number one book to read to “be smarter than your boss,” according to Baseline Magazine, among other accolades. Peter followed the success of that book in September of 2014, when Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass published Implementing World Class IT Strategy: How IT Can Drive Organizational Innovation, a book that became an Amazon.com bestseller in its categories.

Peter is the author of the upcoming book Getting to Nimble: How to Transform Your Company Into a Digital Leader, which will be released in March. Featuring insights from executives at Capital One, Domino's Pizza, The Washington Post, FedEx and other leading firms, the book offers a framework and best practices companies can use to transform their people practices, processes, technologies, ecosystems, and strategies for the digital era.  

Transcript

This transcript was lightly edited.

What is a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?

Michael Krigsman: What makes a great chief information officer? Today, we explore this topic with one of the world's foremost CIO advisors. Peter High is a consultant and an author. His latest book is called Getting to Nimble. What are the characteristics of the best, most innovative CIOs?

Peter High: Well, it begins, Michael, with getting the basics right. Every CIO, like any executive, needs to understand what are the building blocks that I've been assigned and make sure that they are operating well. This is just kind of the blocking and tackling that, frankly, there are still some organizations that don't always necessarily get those things right.

Making sure that the technology that the company is using is up and available, doing what it's supposed to be doing. That it is secure. Increasingly, an important thing, given the growing complexity of cybersecurity issues that abound.

The domain, historically, of chief information officers has largely been on the bottom line of the profit equation. That is thinking about cost-cutting and efficiencies within the organization, taking manual processes and rendering them into repeatable processes with technology aiding them (now to a much greater extent, obviously, with the use of artificial intelligence and algorithm, more generally speaking).

The best of them are the ones that are also focusing on the topline of the profit equation. They're thinking about how to grow revenue. This, I would say, is still by no means the majority of CIOs, Michael.

It is still the domain of the A's and A+'s among that community who recognize the ability to have a profound impact on a company's customers and their experience, as well as, of course, the employees and their experience within the organization.

Recognize that it's a very strategic perch that they have been given, that they touch the processes writ large of the entire organization. If they're doing their job right, touching and influencing the experience of customers in a way that will help the company develop better and new revenue streams for the long-term as well.

Michael Krigsman: That's quite interesting. You say that the very best, the A+ CIOs, have a "profound impact" on customers.

Peter High: The Washington Post I eluded to earlier. The media space, you and I play in the media space in our own ways. You can argue the sorts of things that we are doing are sort of disruptive forces, I suppose, in traditional media – towards traditional media.

It's an industry—to paint with a broad brushstroke—that has been going through timing times for some time. A lot of traditional players have been put out of business and even some of the best players have had to have a dramatic rethink as to how they do business and how they derive revenue.

The Washington Post was no different. It was a company that was bleeding talent. It was losing advertising revenue to the likes of the Googles and the Facebooks of the world.

They were peddling a product in news – a very good news source, I must say. It is my hometown paper even though it is also kind of a national and international newspaper, as I live in the Washington area. But it was languishing, as some of the digital native organizations were beating them at their own game. I was starting to say that what they were peddling is people were expecting it to be free, which is not a great business model to be in.

Well, enter the Chief Information Officer Shailesh Prakash in 2012. The experience for the customer needs to be compelling and representative of the fact that it needs to be an excellent experience in the physical paper, on the phone, on the PC, on the tablets, however they wish to consume the product.

Whereas traditionally, the digital landscape and the traditional landscape operated in parallel but as two worlds, he was a force in bringing that together. In so doing, made for a great experience for the readers in whatever form they chose to consume the product.

The best part of the story in my mind is, Shailesh took it a step further in diagnosing one of the big issues that the paper was facing, which was its platform was very kludgy, an issue that so many different periodicals have had historically. In rectifying that and developing a homegrown, new platform, realized they were really kind of leapfrogging the industry. He then created a new revenue source that is growing to the tune of $100 million in revenue per year now for other periodicals to use. In creating a value proposition that was more compelling to folks like me in Washington and others who are readers of The Washington Post in various devices and forms, he also then created an experience that became the envy of other periodicals, periodicals that were willing to pay The Washington Post for its use.

Characteristics of innovative CIOs

Michael Krigsman: Peter, what you just described, sure, it's the CIO, but is that person a technologist? Are they a business person? Should we even be making this distinction?

Peter High: That's a really good question and one that's been up for debate for a long time in various forms. Should a CIO? Is it necessary for him or her to be an engineer by background, to have grown up in a technology field in some way to understand the inner workings of it, given its complexity?

I will not necessarily side on one way or the other, definitively, as I've seen people without technical backgrounds be some of the best CIOs. They oftentimes will need a CTO or a partner in crime who does understand the technical details at a level that perhaps they don't.

I think the best-case scenario is, you have somebody who does understand the technology, who understands the ones and zeros of what the company, what the department is working with. But also, has the business acumen to be able to understand how is business created in this company; how do we impact (as I mentioned before) the topline and the bottom line, especially in public organizations where that's so important and will be tracked by Wall Street on a regular basis to gauge success or lack thereof?

This becomes, I think, increasingly an important part of what CIOs need to do. As a result, having that broader perspective becomes so important.

If I can just share a quick story relative to that, Michael – Vanguard. Vanguard is the largest mutual fund company; one of the largest financial services organizations, as a result of that, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania – just outside of Philadelphia.

Their CIO, another one of the greats (to my mind)—John Marcante is his name—he's been with the company, after a period at GE, for a couple of decades now at Vanguard. His pathway is not so dissimilar from others within Vanguard.

He joined in IT and, as he was viewed as a high potential and his career started to take off, they began to give him assignments outside of IT. What did this do? This leavened his experience with a greater and deeper understanding as to how value is created. Why do customers pay us anything and how does that go up? How do we think about the development of new products?

He ended up running a different business. He has his own profit and loss statement, a P&L, within one of the businesses at Vanguard before coming back to become the chief information officer. I should also mention, by the way, Tim Buckley, the chief executive officer of the company, is himself a former chief information officer of the organization.

This is a general point beyond the IT department. Those companies that think of themselves as talent factories where they provide people a figurative semester abroad, year abroad, or maybe it's multiple years abroad—I say that figuratively. In some cases, it could be literally if it's an international part of your business—certainly, adjacent areas, giving them experiences in other business units or divisions of the company such that when they ascend, perhaps into the original division they were a part of, they do so with a richness and a fuller understanding, as I say, how value is created and, therefore, have a better appreciation as to how they and (by extension, of course) their teams can impact that.

Michael Krigsman: It's not just a matter of understanding what the company, the activities that the company performs, or the products, but it's a deeper understanding of the nature of how the business is creating value and what that means and represents to the customers.

Peter High: That's right, exactly right. Thus, part of the reason I mentioned earlier, Michael, the need to spend time with customers.

Still, there are many organizations where the CIO and his or her team are not given access to customers. "Look, that's the domain of the CEO, the marketing department, or the sales department, perhaps product and service areas of the organization, but not you, IT. Yours is a purview that's within our walls, not outside of them."

What I would say is, look. As we all become more digitally savvy (and this applies B2B or B2C) that as we all become more digitally savvy, the chances are that the end-user, whether it is a company and its employees in a B2B scenario or it's individuals like you and me, consumers of a product, let's say, understanding the personas of the customers and the way in which they are interacting with you, especially now to a much greater extent almost across the board in some digital fashion, not having that person at the table providing some kind of input to that becomes a risk, I would say, for a lot of organizations.

It's a combination of the company, of course, seeing that need. But I would say, and I would urge the CIOs who are listening today that if I'm not describing your experience that you push for that and you provide the rationale as to the value, the greater levels of value that you and your team can contribute as a result of that.

Michael Krigsman: The question then becomes how does a CIO get there?

Peter High: What is difficult about it, of course, is the executive may have the desire to do so. But if the culture is such and the rest of the C-suite is such that they are loathed to allow that executive to have that reach and that influence, it's an uphill battle, frankly. I know a great number of CIOs who have had this ambition, recognize that this is the right path, and have chosen, frankly, to take themselves out of the current environment and find themselves a new post where that might be possible.

Look. What I would say is, this is as much a story of reaching out to the rest of the organization and telling them what's possible. This "art of the possible" conversation becomes really important. So much of it needs to be, "Look. I'm asking for greater levels of responsibility but hold me to creating new types of value in so doing."

As I said, rare is it the role within a corporate structure that has as broad a set of touchpoints across the enterprise and especially, again, if you think about the insights that can be drawn by understanding the processes (cradle to grave) in addition, of course, to the technology (cradle to grave) across the entire enterprise. There's a lot of value and insight that can come from that.

As I mentioned earlier, first and foremost, it means playing in your sandbox first and making sure that the sand and the toys are in the right place. I need to be careful with the analogies I choose here. You're operating well with your original set of undertakings. Once that is in place and operating well, beginning to expand the possibilities by conveying the art of the possible, by signing up for new types of value to be created, that's very important as well.

Underneath all of that, a CIO, CDO, CTO, the head of technology and digital, is just one person. If they're not changing the culture inside the department that they're a part of, then these are just words. These are ambitions without the ability to act upon them.

It also means hiring the right sort of people that recognize that art of the possible and want to make the change that's described. It means developing the sort of narrative, mission, and vision within that department to become sort of a rallying cry of sorts for those in it to make the change necessary in order to do that as well.

It's not for the faint of heart, Michael. I don't mean to suggest that this is a light switch that can be flipped on as a result of it dawning upon someone that this is a worthy journey to pursue. But I will say that those organizations that do pursue this and remain steadfast in the change that's necessary are the ones who are going to succeed.

What challenges do CIOs face?

Michael Krigsman: We have another question, this time from LinkedIn. This is from Mostafa Radwan. It relates to the aspirational CIO goal, Peter, that you were just describing. Mostafa says, "How can we make sure that CIOs have a seat at the table post-pandemic (i.e., board meetings, strategy formulation workshops, and so on)?" I think the question is very similar. How can CIOs achieve that level of CIO greatness that you were describing earlier?

Peter High: As I mentioned before, this has been a tremendous accelerator for digital transformation – all things being equal. If you're in a hospitality space, an airline, or certain parts of the restaurant industry, for example, the food industry, this has been very trying. Even if you are a leader in that space, you've been hurt as a consequence of this downturn.

All things being equal, though, those companies that have thrived and been most resilient, I would say that one of the key ingredients has been the degree to which they have remained steadfast and committed to digital transformation. I'm using a very broad topic there. There's a lot that hangs under the topic of digital transformation. Those that have modernized their people practices, their processes, their technologies, rethought the way in which they develop ecosystems, rethought the way in which they formulate strategy, these are the ones that have been thriving, or at least doing more than surviving, during these times and will have tremendous tailwinds coming out of this.

What I would say is, Mostafa, if yours is an organization—and perhaps it is, if I'm interpreting the question correctly—that has not yet reached that degree of digital transformation across your enterprise, I would say this is the time to point to those points of difference. The leaders in these various fields and the steps that they've undertaken in order to thrive during these very uncertain times to emulate the pathways that they have chosen, to choose more modern practices relative to the categories I mentioned. By the way, the five categories that are featured in my upcoming book as well. It's important to rethink these sorts of things in order to have that increased relevance.

One more thing. Mostafa, you mentioned the board-level parts of this. There are some trends afoot that I think are going to continue to make IT and the tech leader, tech and digital leader, increasingly relevant to that.

First, unfortunately, is cybersecurity. If there is a board out there that is not concerned with cybersecurity, that is a big, big problem. As a result of that, people with technical backgrounds, certainly the CISO of an organization (if they have one, and hopefully they do), and typically the tech and digital chief (the CIO, CDO, CTO) ought to be getting a lot more turns with the board as a result of the defensive part, the risk part of those sorts of conversations.

Although, increasingly, and this is one of the reasons why we're seeing a growing cadre of CIOs joining the board of directors of public companies is also for reasons of offense and opportunity, that there is a better need to use one's data to make better decisions and organize it accordingly. We need to have better insights and advice from a board member who can help us think about reshaping products and services in the digital world, rendering not only digital versions of that but brand new offerings that are themselves primarily digital. I would say the CIO, CDO, CTO's role in impacting that at the board level is only going to increase as a result of this combination of a need for better defensive strategies and conversation at the board level as well as those offensive ones as well.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. You can see I really try to prioritize the questions that come in from listeners. What are the biggest business challenges facing companies in 2021 that CIOs can help solve?

Peter High: One of the key aspects of that, I talked about data. I alluded to that briefly. I mentioned earlier that I convene in small gatherings and large ones, as well as just the interviews that I do. I speak with a lot of technology executives. One of the really interesting findings, as I've been polling probably, let's say, 400 or 500 of these executives as to their priorities, is data in all of its forms—data management, data analysis, data security, certainly—is near the top, if not the top priority, for a lot of these organizations.

However, in asking the follow-up questions, as I've often done in the polling that I do, how mature are your data strategy activities? The level of maturity is very low. The desire to reach maturity and the investments behind that is rising, but the ability to formulate a great plan and act upon that plan is really low.

Let me give you another quick datapoint. The average tenure right now for chief data officers is, some would say, roughly a year. The data that I've been seeing puts it right around a year, which suggests that organizations are bringing in executives in the hope that that alligator can be wrestled to the ground, but they realize that it's too difficult to do so and jettison the executive fairly quickly, either replacing him or her or perhaps going for a time without one.

What I would say is, this is something that, why not the CIO getting very firmly involved if not leading this area of activity? Every business has data that it is collecting on its operation, on its employees, on its customers, on the health and growth of its service offering or product offering.

Finding ways to be the source of better organization of that data, security of that data, to facilitate the drawing of insights from it to make better decisions, this is a profound impact that the technology executive can have for his or her organization. This is real opportunity, again, for both ends of the profit equation to make an enormous impact. I would certainly encourage and push those CIOs who are listening to do so.

Organizational politics and the CIO

Michael Krigsman: Another question from Twitter, again from Arsalan Khan, "How should CIOs handle the politics inside organizations that sometimes militate against the CIO taking the kind of expansive role that you've just described?" I'll just amplify that and say that when any business exec tries to take on a broader, more expansive role, there will be folks that push back.

Peter High: That's a great point. Actually, the datapoint really proves that in many ways because the data resides in so many different areas. As a new executive comes in and, perhaps, is given the mandate or attempts to seize the mandate of taking control, to some degree it feels like a loss of autonomy. It may well be a loss of autonomy depending upon that person's remit.

The politics of this, the change management aspects of this, the communications aspects of these sorts of changes are really important. I cannot underscore that enough. Recognizing that when you're moving people's cheese, they are going to react negatively. Many of them will react negatively if they don't understand what's in it for me, what's in it for the broader company.

Now, let me give you a different example, Arsalan. When digital, as a topic, began to emerge in a lot of organizations and the development of digital strategies became more of a thing, there was a thought process that this was largely a discipline that would (and the executive, in fact, would) emerge out of the marketing department. Indeed, many of the initial CDOs were marketing executives.

What that meant was, the companies that were drawing that conclusion were saying, "This is predominantly an external lens that we need to put to this. The opportunity for digital is one in digitizing our products and services and our customer experience. Who knows that better than our marketing folks?"

A lot of those early CDOs—again, painting with broad brush strokes—some of those have succeeded wildly, but many of them have not because, of course, there are pretty deep technical details that one needs to master in order to get this right. At a minimum, that executive needs to have a strong partnership with the CIO.

What I would say is, if the CIO is Mr./Mrs. Inside & Outside—again, has a deep appreciation for how the operation and all of its processes work, while also having great customer touchpoints—that that really positions that executive to be the source of digital transformation, the leader of digital transformation. Even in that, as the point makes, there is an external point to it. There are many different parts of the organization that have primarily that as their domain and area of focus. Navigating that appropriately, providing due deference to other leaders when you're part of a change that could seem threatening to them is very, very important.

That's why I think EQ in leadership, that's not necessarily been the highest score on the various gradations for CIOs. They've been more IQ than EQ, I would say (historically speaking). We see now a growing number of them that have equal measures of the two because understanding how people work, understanding the threat somebody else might feel, tackling it head-on, frankly, and making sure that the different executives are drawing conclusions together and marching arm-in-arm towards this better reality in the future becomes so much more important.

Michael Krigsman: The emotional aspects, emotional quotient, emotional intelligence aspects of communication and collaboration have become, can we say, table stakes today to achieve CIO greatness?

Peter High: I think so. Yeah, Michael, I don't think that that's too much of an overstatement. If in fact, the CIO has taken his or her rightful place as a true chief in the organization—

By the way, I mentioned earlier that very few in the initial stages reported to CEOs. For six or seven years now—according to my friends in the executive recruiting space—it has been the primary, the predominant relationship, which is itself a great sign as to that leader becoming a true chief, a peer of the rest of the chiefs.

If, in fact, that's going to be the case, one needs to have that, exude that empathy, and understand the kind of psychological aspects, frankly, of being a great leader: motivating a team, asking them to make great change, and do new things that were not part of their purview previously. As I say, massaging the egos of a great number of other executives who are going to be necessary to move with them in order for success to be achieved. Absolutely, I would say that that's a key ingredient.

CIO investment and innovation

Michael Krigsman: Peter, how should CIOs think about the way they invest today in order to help drive the company and drive their role towards that goal or that paradigm archetype of CIO greatness that we've been talking about?

Peter High: The flexibility one has from a financial perspective, naturally, is different today than it was a year and a half ago and, hopefully, will be in a better situation in some months ahead once we can officially have COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. What I would say is a couple of different things.

First of all, part of the modernization that is necessary within IT means variablizing your cost structure to a much greater extent. A lot of the flexibility in IT departments have historically been minimized by virtue of the fact that there was so much hard iron that was purchased with long depreciation schedules and, therefore, the overall budget (a tremendous amount of it) was spoken for on January 1st or whenever the first day of the fiscal year was without a lot of flexibility.

It has a large role to play in variablizing what it can from among those. I think of, of course, cloud technologies and as a service technology as great examples of that – those that can scale up and scale back with greater ease.

Hopefully, although I wouldn't say that cloud computing is primarily a cost play but managing it correctly can in fact improve your cost basis, at least for some periods of time depending upon its use and how it is used. What I would say is, it's important that, as the IT leader is finding savings where one can, that a portion (if not the lion's share of that) be invested in innovation.

This is also a very interesting time to bring up that topic because, in a lot of corrections, the innovation faucet gets turned off, and innovation is a muscle. It atrophies when it is not used enough – for a long period of time. It's important to keep that faucet on, to continue to grow those muscles – to mix metaphors here.

Once we get to a new normal, the next normal, if you will, and investment cycles become more typical, perhaps, not having the innovation resources in place, mindset, and culture can be deleterious as to the impact the organization can make.

Let's face it, of course, innovation is not all about developing the next great product. It's wonderful when it is. Innovation happens in ways of finding cost savings or efficiencies by doing things better in new ways.

There are a variety of ways in which that innovation could be shaped to fit the times. But that investment portfolio that you ask about, I would say, first of all, being very responsible with the dollars you've given and shaving away where you can, where it's appropriate, but always making the case for using a portion of that savings to keep that innovation pipeline alive and growing.

Michael Krigsman: Which then begs the question, to what extent should CIOs be investing in innovation versus in the stability of existing systems? Historically, that number was so heavily weighted towards maintenance, you know, 85% or whatever it is.

Peter High: Yeah.

Michael Krigsman: Which crowds out the innovation, so what is the right balance?

Peter High: Yeah, you're right. That's precisely the sort of statistic that I was referencing as well, Michael, that if 85% of the budget is spoken for before the fiscal year has even begun, well, then how many new and innovative things can you really be doing?

Look. The ratio will be different company-to-company. I can't tell you it should be 50/50 no matter who you are and what business or industry you're in. Certainly, it should be getting closer to parity.

I think, perhaps, if done especially well, as I've seen in some cases where it's even below. I've seen some companies go from 70/30 in terms of that kind of run the business technology and flipping that over such that it's only 30%, leaving oneself a lot more budget so long as the case is made to keep some of that sacred. Some of it, no doubt, would be taken as cost savings, perhaps for the enterprise, but keeping a good portion of that as new investments to make for the future as well.

Again, it gets back to, you raised maintenance as one of the key areas. Indeed, that is one of those. Modern technology doesn't require maintenance in the same way. It actually, frankly, also disrupts the way in which we think about the teams that we're putting together and the makeup of that team as well.

There are options (options abound, really) in terms of ways in which that efficiency, that combination of modernizing the footprint of the organization to be able to do and have more flexibility for the new and the innovative. Therefore, one doesn't need to be at the bleeding edge in order to accomplish these things.

CIO investment: Balancing efficiency vs. innovation

Michael Krigsman: We have another comment from Arsalan Khan. Arsalan is a regular listener and I always appreciate your questions, Arsalan. He asks about the impact of no-code and low-code products in helping drive down costs while enabling innovation.

Peter High: This is a really interesting trend that's rising. My friends in the venture capital community, for instance, have been plowing a lot of money into companies that are supplying this.

In fact, actually, there are companies that are emerging that have been created by CIOs. Gary Hoberman, who used to be the co-CIO of MetLife, has developed a company called Unqork that provides low-code/no-code technology for organizations.

I think it is clearly part of the answer. Like so many of the modern technologies, whether it's containers and microservices, broader use of APIs, all of these, I think, are weapons that need to be introduced as part of the arsenal of the modern CIO.

But I do need to stress that a strategy needs to be there. It's not just investing in these willy-nilly. It is important to develop pilots and test cases for each to get a better understanding as to how it operates and the value that the organization can derive, what the best use cases of them are, and where they aren't. That's very important is developing the negative case, if you will, and understanding the limits of some of this technology expansion.

As I referenced before, part of the art of the possible is continued experimentation as these trends rise and determining whether or not there's an application back into the enterprise. I would certainly say that low-code/no-code is no exception to that. I believe that that needs to be a weapon in the arsenal of the modern CIO.

Michael Krigsman: If the modern CIO is first and foremost a business person, when you start talking about containers, microservices, APIs, low-code/no-code, and other detailed technology discussions, that moves out of the business person domain and deeply into the technical domain. And so, how can a CIO reconcile these two different dimensions, the business and the highly technical?

Peter High: As I alluded to earlier, as well, if a CIO is coming to the post without any sort of technology background—and I can think of several of them off the top of my head—they need to be modest enough to recognize their limitations and find other people who are going to fill in the gaps because this still is a technology role. In stating that to a greater extent it is a business role, it doesn't mean that the technology goes away. Of course, that is a fundamental part of the domain, and understanding the root of the technology—the domain, the portfolio that is currently being managed, and how that is going to be managed and modernized over time—needs to be part of what CIOs do.

As I say, if a CIO comes into the post without that ability (yet, at least) number one, they need to get a great advisor (inside or outside of the organization). Number two, they need to understand that it will take a period of time for them to be able to speak on a level playing field with the rest of the team and represent this appropriately.

That really then takes me to the third, which is a degree of learning agility, which, by the way, I think is one of the key ingredients of really any company, but certainly any IT department, given how fast trends are changing. It means thirsting for the knowledge of what's coming next, understanding it, playing around with it, drawing conclusions about it, and then translating it back with great stories and narratives as to the potential value to the rest of the organization, being that guide and translator for those who are even less technical among the rest of the staff.

That's something IT teams need to have as a basic ingredient writ large across that team. But I would say the leader (himself or herself) needs to embody that. And so, as a result of that, especially for those who are less technical, it means immersing themselves in deep training, reading, experimenting, and, frankly, collaborating with the rest of the team in order to grow that knowledge within them.

Future of the CIO role in 2021 and beyond

Michael Krigsman: We have a question from Melissa Drew on LinkedIn. She asks an important question. She says, "The role and definition of the CIO has constantly been expanding. How do you see this role expanding further in the near future (i.e., the shift of roles and responsibilities)?" In other words, where is the CIO role going in 2021?

Peter High: Indeed, I've done a story. I've done a series—both as part of my Forbes column and my podcast—on these CIO pluses. I alluded to that earlier. It's been fascinating to see the plus roles that have been added to the CIO.

A few of the prominent ones that have been growing are product-centric ones. I mentioned Shailesh Prakash at The Washington Post as an example of that, so technology and product together. Don Weinstein is another example at ADP, as somebody who has both those sets of responsibilities.

There are also leaders that are taking operations responsibilities, technology, and operations. I recently interviewed Cathy Bessant at Bank of America, who is the chief technology and operations officer, for example. Mojgan Lefebvre at Travelers holds those two posts as well.

Although it's a micro version of the rationale behind this, as you think about DevOps and the combinations of the development side of technology and the operations—not only within technology, but the broader business—there is an ability now to have a greater role to play in both of those worlds. I think that that's growing and will continue to be an adjacency that is logical for technologists to take on as well.

In my podcast last week, I interviewed Sally Gilligan, who is the chief information officer and chief strategy officer of Gap. That's a combination we've seen several times as well. The rationale behind that is, there is almost no organization within the enterprise that needs to impact every other part of the organization quite like IT.

Michael, the example I often give is, the average HR executive has the internal vector, as I mentioned before, the population of people within the company. The marketing division has an external lens, as we've talked about in a variety of different ways today as well. Great executives who lead those two parts of the business probably would understand a bit about each other's strategy, but the IT leader, by contrast, needs to breathe life into both of those and everyone in between. Where there is a lack of a good strategic planning process and hygiene, you can argue that the IT leader is maybe most disadvantaged by any sort of lack of clarity there.

Oftentimes, we're seeing CIOs fill the gap by creating a process and convening a set of conversations across the C-suite and the executive ranks and, in so doing, in essence, inserting themselves to take over that process. As I say, Sally is representative of what I've seen several times over as CIOs taking on the strategy role as well, and I think there's reason to believe there will be others who walk in her footsteps.

Michael Krigsman: What should CIOs do now to ensure that they remain relevant to their organization going through 2021?

Peter High: One of the things that I think has really been lacking in organizations has been a real understanding as to how the different parts and pieces work. Somebody who goes to get an MBA will take finance, marketing, sales, entrepreneurship, and management, accounting, et cetera. But once we join the ranks of a business, if you're in IT, do you really understand how finance is doing their job, how marketing is doing theirs?

What I would say is, the IT leader could do an enormous service for the enterprise that he or she is a part of by suggesting that there be 101 and 201 and maybe even 301 courses taught—including themselves, by the way, from a technology lens—as to: this is what we do; this is how we create value; this is the language that we use; this is what we are managing. And push the marketing executive to develop the same sort of curriculum not just for marketing's use, but for everyone's use. Do the same within finance, within a product area, and then, certainly, the products and services ought to have their own sort of training that happens with frequency as well.

I think if the IT leader were to chair that, the value that he or she would be driving would be very significant. The process, assuming that he or she is a consumer of the materials that are developed, well then, gosh, their radar will be that much more fine-tuned as to where to point the team to create the greatest value across the enterprise.

Michael Krigsman: The bottom line is, at the end of the day, it really comes down to a point you made earlier, which is, CIO greatness is not just about understanding the products but, at a fundamental level, understanding the drivers of how the business creates value for the customers, what do customers care about, and what is the business doing to meet those underlying needs that got reflected in the products.

Peter High: Very well said, Michael. Hear, hear.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, you have been watching CXOTalk. We've been speaking with Peter High. He is the author of this excellent book Getting to Nimble.

You know when I invite guests to come on CXOTalk, you should know I'm pitched constantly, endlessly, all the time. If I hold up a book and I say it's a good book, I really think it's a good book, so you should check it out.

Peter, thank you so much for taking time and for sharing your insight and experience with us today.

Peter High: Michael, it's been an honor. As I say, I've been a great fan of your work and I'm honored now to be a little bit of a part of it.

Michael Krigsman: You're very kind. Everybody, thank you for watching. For the folks who asked questions, we really appreciate your questions. We're glad that you did.

Before you go, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website. Have a great day, everybody. Take care. Bye-bye.

This transcript was lightly edited.

What is a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?

Michael Krigsman: What makes a great chief information officer? Today, we explore this topic with one of the world's foremost CIO advisors. Peter High is a consultant and an author. His latest book is called Getting to Nimble. What are the characteristics of the best, most innovative CIOs?

Peter High: Well, it begins, Michael, with getting the basics right. Every CIO, like any executive, needs to understand what are the building blocks that I've been assigned and make sure that they are operating well. This is just kind of the blocking and tackling that, frankly, there are still some organizations that don't always necessarily get those things right.

Making sure that the technology that the company is using is up and available, doing what it's supposed to be doing. That it is secure. Increasingly, an important thing, given the growing complexity of cybersecurity issues that abound.

The domain, historically, of chief information officers has largely been on the bottom line of the profit equation. That is thinking about cost-cutting and efficiencies within the organization, taking manual processes and rendering them into repeatable processes with technology aiding them (now to a much greater extent, obviously, with the use of artificial intelligence and algorithm, more generally speaking).

The best of them are the ones that are also focusing on the topline of the profit equation. They're thinking about how to grow revenue. This, I would say, is still by no means the majority of CIOs, Michael.

It is still the domain of the A's and A+'s among that community who recognize the ability to have a profound impact on a company's customers and their experience, as well as, of course, the employees and their experience within the organization.

Recognize that it's a very strategic perch that they have been given, that they touch the processes writ large of the entire organization. If they're doing their job right, touching and influencing the experience of customers in a way that will help the company develop better and new revenue streams for the long-term as well.

Michael Krigsman: That's quite interesting. You say that the very best, the A+ CIOs, have a "profound impact" on customers.

Peter High: The Washington Post I eluded to earlier. The media space, you and I play in the media space in our own ways. You can argue the sorts of things that we are doing are sort of disruptive forces, I suppose, in traditional media – towards traditional media.

It's an industry—to paint with a broad brushstroke—that has been going through timing times for some time. A lot of traditional players have been put out of business and even some of the best players have had to have a dramatic rethink as to how they do business and how they derive revenue.

The Washington Post was no different. It was a company that was bleeding talent. It was losing advertising revenue to the likes of the Googles and the Facebooks of the world.

They were peddling a product in news – a very good news source, I must say. It is my hometown paper even though it is also kind of a national and international newspaper, as I live in the Washington area. But it was languishing, as some of the digital native organizations were beating them at their own game. I was starting to say that what they were peddling is people were expecting it to be free, which is not a great business model to be in.

Well, enter the Chief Information Officer Shailesh Prakash in 2012. The experience for the customer needs to be compelling and representative of the fact that it needs to be an excellent experience in the physical paper, on the phone, on the PC, on the tablets, however they wish to consume the product.

Whereas traditionally, the digital landscape and the traditional landscape operated in parallel but as two worlds, he was a force in bringing that together. In so doing, made for a great experience for the readers in whatever form they chose to consume the product.

The best part of the story in my mind is, Shailesh took it a step further in diagnosing one of the big issues that the paper was facing, which was its platform was very kludgy, an issue that so many different periodicals have had historically. In rectifying that and developing a homegrown, new platform, realized they were really kind of leapfrogging the industry. He then created a new revenue source that is growing to the tune of $100 million in revenue per year now for other periodicals to use. In creating a value proposition that was more compelling to folks like me in Washington and others who are readers of The Washington Post in various devices and forms, he also then created an experience that became the envy of other periodicals, periodicals that were willing to pay The Washington Post for its use.

Characteristics of innovative CIOs

Michael Krigsman: Peter, what you just described, sure, it's the CIO, but is that person a technologist? Are they a business person? Should we even be making this distinction?

Peter High: That's a really good question and one that's been up for debate for a long time in various forms. Should a CIO? Is it necessary for him or her to be an engineer by background, to have grown up in a technology field in some way to understand the inner workings of it, given its complexity?

I will not necessarily side on one way or the other, definitively, as I've seen people without technical backgrounds be some of the best CIOs. They oftentimes will need a CTO or a partner in crime who does understand the technical details at a level that perhaps they don't.

I think the best-case scenario is, you have somebody who does understand the technology, who understands the ones and zeros of what the company, what the department is working with. But also, has the business acumen to be able to understand how is business created in this company; how do we impact (as I mentioned before) the topline and the bottom line, especially in public organizations where that's so important and will be tracked by Wall Street on a regular basis to gauge success or lack thereof?

This becomes, I think, increasingly an important part of what CIOs need to do. As a result, having that broader perspective becomes so important.

If I can just share a quick story relative to that, Michael – Vanguard. Vanguard is the largest mutual fund company; one of the largest financial services organizations, as a result of that, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania – just outside of Philadelphia.

Their CIO, another one of the greats (to my mind)—John Marcante is his name—he's been with the company, after a period at GE, for a couple of decades now at Vanguard. His pathway is not so dissimilar from others within Vanguard.

He joined in IT and, as he was viewed as a high potential and his career started to take off, they began to give him assignments outside of IT. What did this do? This leavened his experience with a greater and deeper understanding as to how value is created. Why do customers pay us anything and how does that go up? How do we think about the development of new products?

He ended up running a different business. He has his own profit and loss statement, a P&L, within one of the businesses at Vanguard before coming back to become the chief information officer. I should also mention, by the way, Tim Buckley, the chief executive officer of the company, is himself a former chief information officer of the organization.

This is a general point beyond the IT department. Those companies that think of themselves as talent factories where they provide people a figurative semester abroad, year abroad, or maybe it's multiple years abroad—I say that figuratively. In some cases, it could be literally if it's an international part of your business—certainly, adjacent areas, giving them experiences in other business units or divisions of the company such that when they ascend, perhaps into the original division they were a part of, they do so with a richness and a fuller understanding, as I say, how value is created and, therefore, have a better appreciation as to how they and (by extension, of course) their teams can impact that.

Michael Krigsman: It's not just a matter of understanding what the company, the activities that the company performs, or the products, but it's a deeper understanding of the nature of how the business is creating value and what that means and represents to the customers.

Peter High: That's right, exactly right. Thus, part of the reason I mentioned earlier, Michael, the need to spend time with customers.

Still, there are many organizations where the CIO and his or her team are not given access to customers. "Look, that's the domain of the CEO, the marketing department, or the sales department, perhaps product and service areas of the organization, but not you, IT. Yours is a purview that's within our walls, not outside of them."

What I would say is, look. As we all become more digitally savvy (and this applies B2B or B2C) that as we all become more digitally savvy, the chances are that the end-user, whether it is a company and its employees in a B2B scenario or it's individuals like you and me, consumers of a product, let's say, understanding the personas of the customers and the way in which they are interacting with you, especially now to a much greater extent almost across the board in some digital fashion, not having that person at the table providing some kind of input to that becomes a risk, I would say, for a lot of organizations.

It's a combination of the company, of course, seeing that need. But I would say, and I would urge the CIOs who are listening today that if I'm not describing your experience that you push for that and you provide the rationale as to the value, the greater levels of value that you and your team can contribute as a result of that.

Michael Krigsman: The question then becomes how does a CIO get there?

Peter High: What is difficult about it, of course, is the executive may have the desire to do so. But if the culture is such and the rest of the C-suite is such that they are loathed to allow that executive to have that reach and that influence, it's an uphill battle, frankly. I know a great number of CIOs who have had this ambition, recognize that this is the right path, and have chosen, frankly, to take themselves out of the current environment and find themselves a new post where that might be possible.

Look. What I would say is, this is as much a story of reaching out to the rest of the organization and telling them what's possible. This "art of the possible" conversation becomes really important. So much of it needs to be, "Look. I'm asking for greater levels of responsibility but hold me to creating new types of value in so doing."

As I said, rare is it the role within a corporate structure that has as broad a set of touchpoints across the enterprise and especially, again, if you think about the insights that can be drawn by understanding the processes (cradle to grave) in addition, of course, to the technology (cradle to grave) across the entire enterprise. There's a lot of value and insight that can come from that.

As I mentioned earlier, first and foremost, it means playing in your sandbox first and making sure that the sand and the toys are in the right place. I need to be careful with the analogies I choose here. You're operating well with your original set of undertakings. Once that is in place and operating well, beginning to expand the possibilities by conveying the art of the possible, by signing up for new types of value to be created, that's very important as well.

Underneath all of that, a CIO, CDO, CTO, the head of technology and digital, is just one person. If they're not changing the culture inside the department that they're a part of, then these are just words. These are ambitions without the ability to act upon them.

It also means hiring the right sort of people that recognize that art of the possible and want to make the change that's described. It means developing the sort of narrative, mission, and vision within that department to become sort of a rallying cry of sorts for those in it to make the change necessary in order to do that as well.

It's not for the faint of heart, Michael. I don't mean to suggest that this is a light switch that can be flipped on as a result of it dawning upon someone that this is a worthy journey to pursue. But I will say that those organizations that do pursue this and remain steadfast in the change that's necessary are the ones who are going to succeed.

What challenges do CIOs face?

Michael Krigsman: We have another question, this time from LinkedIn. This is from Mostafa Radwan. It relates to the aspirational CIO goal, Peter, that you were just describing. Mostafa says, "How can we make sure that CIOs have a seat at the table post-pandemic (i.e., board meetings, strategy formulation workshops, and so on)?" I think the question is very similar. How can CIOs achieve that level of CIO greatness that you were describing earlier?

Peter High: As I mentioned before, this has been a tremendous accelerator for digital transformation – all things being equal. If you're in a hospitality space, an airline, or certain parts of the restaurant industry, for example, the food industry, this has been very trying. Even if you are a leader in that space, you've been hurt as a consequence of this downturn.

All things being equal, though, those companies that have thrived and been most resilient, I would say that one of the key ingredients has been the degree to which they have remained steadfast and committed to digital transformation. I'm using a very broad topic there. There's a lot that hangs under the topic of digital transformation. Those that have modernized their people practices, their processes, their technologies, rethought the way in which they develop ecosystems, rethought the way in which they formulate strategy, these are the ones that have been thriving, or at least doing more than surviving, during these times and will have tremendous tailwinds coming out of this.

What I would say is, Mostafa, if yours is an organization—and perhaps it is, if I'm interpreting the question correctly—that has not yet reached that degree of digital transformation across your enterprise, I would say this is the time to point to those points of difference. The leaders in these various fields and the steps that they've undertaken in order to thrive during these very uncertain times to emulate the pathways that they have chosen, to choose more modern practices relative to the categories I mentioned. By the way, the five categories that are featured in my upcoming book as well. It's important to rethink these sorts of things in order to have that increased relevance.

One more thing. Mostafa, you mentioned the board-level parts of this. There are some trends afoot that I think are going to continue to make IT and the tech leader, tech and digital leader, increasingly relevant to that.

First, unfortunately, is cybersecurity. If there is a board out there that is not concerned with cybersecurity, that is a big, big problem. As a result of that, people with technical backgrounds, certainly the CISO of an organization (if they have one, and hopefully they do), and typically the tech and digital chief (the CIO, CDO, CTO) ought to be getting a lot more turns with the board as a result of the defensive part, the risk part of those sorts of conversations.

Although, increasingly, and this is one of the reasons why we're seeing a growing cadre of CIOs joining the board of directors of public companies is also for reasons of offense and opportunity, that there is a better need to use one's data to make better decisions and organize it accordingly. We need to have better insights and advice from a board member who can help us think about reshaping products and services in the digital world, rendering not only digital versions of that but brand new offerings that are themselves primarily digital. I would say the CIO, CDO, CTO's role in impacting that at the board level is only going to increase as a result of this combination of a need for better defensive strategies and conversation at the board level as well as those offensive ones as well.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. You can see I really try to prioritize the questions that come in from listeners. What are the biggest business challenges facing companies in 2021 that CIOs can help solve?

Peter High: One of the key aspects of that, I talked about data. I alluded to that briefly. I mentioned earlier that I convene in small gatherings and large ones, as well as just the interviews that I do. I speak with a lot of technology executives. One of the really interesting findings, as I've been polling probably, let's say, 400 or 500 of these executives as to their priorities, is data in all of its forms—data management, data analysis, data security, certainly—is near the top, if not the top priority, for a lot of these organizations.

However, in asking the follow-up questions, as I've often done in the polling that I do, how mature are your data strategy activities? The level of maturity is very low. The desire to reach maturity and the investments behind that is rising, but the ability to formulate a great plan and act upon that plan is really low.

Let me give you another quick datapoint. The average tenure right now for chief data officers is, some would say, roughly a year. The data that I've been seeing puts it right around a year, which suggests that organizations are bringing in executives in the hope that that alligator can be wrestled to the ground, but they realize that it's too difficult to do so and jettison the executive fairly quickly, either replacing him or her or perhaps going for a time without one.

What I would say is, this is something that, why not the CIO getting very firmly involved if not leading this area of activity? Every business has data that it is collecting on its operation, on its employees, on its customers, on the health and growth of its service offering or product offering.

Finding ways to be the source of better organization of that data, security of that data, to facilitate the drawing of insights from it to make better decisions, this is a profound impact that the technology executive can have for his or her organization. This is real opportunity, again, for both ends of the profit equation to make an enormous impact. I would certainly encourage and push those CIOs who are listening to do so.

Organizational politics and the CIO

Michael Krigsman: Another question from Twitter, again from Arsalan Khan, "How should CIOs handle the politics inside organizations that sometimes militate against the CIO taking the kind of expansive role that you've just described?" I'll just amplify that and say that when any business exec tries to take on a broader, more expansive role, there will be folks that push back.

Peter High: That's a great point. Actually, the datapoint really proves that in many ways because the data resides in so many different areas. As a new executive comes in and, perhaps, is given the mandate or attempts to seize the mandate of taking control, to some degree it feels like a loss of autonomy. It may well be a loss of autonomy depending upon that person's remit.

The politics of this, the change management aspects of this, the communications aspects of these sorts of changes are really important. I cannot underscore that enough. Recognizing that when you're moving people's cheese, they are going to react negatively. Many of them will react negatively if they don't understand what's in it for me, what's in it for the broader company.

Now, let me give you a different example, Arsalan. When digital, as a topic, began to emerge in a lot of organizations and the development of digital strategies became more of a thing, there was a thought process that this was largely a discipline that would (and the executive, in fact, would) emerge out of the marketing department. Indeed, many of the initial CDOs were marketing executives.

What that meant was, the companies that were drawing that conclusion were saying, "This is predominantly an external lens that we need to put to this. The opportunity for digital is one in digitizing our products and services and our customer experience. Who knows that better than our marketing folks?"

A lot of those early CDOs—again, painting with broad brush strokes—some of those have succeeded wildly, but many of them have not because, of course, there are pretty deep technical details that one needs to master in order to get this right. At a minimum, that executive needs to have a strong partnership with the CIO.

What I would say is, if the CIO is Mr./Mrs. Inside & Outside—again, has a deep appreciation for how the operation and all of its processes work, while also having great customer touchpoints—that that really positions that executive to be the source of digital transformation, the leader of digital transformation. Even in that, as the point makes, there is an external point to it. There are many different parts of the organization that have primarily that as their domain and area of focus. Navigating that appropriately, providing due deference to other leaders when you're part of a change that could seem threatening to them is very, very important.

That's why I think EQ in leadership, that's not necessarily been the highest score on the various gradations for CIOs. They've been more IQ than EQ, I would say (historically speaking). We see now a growing number of them that have equal measures of the two because understanding how people work, understanding the threat somebody else might feel, tackling it head-on, frankly, and making sure that the different executives are drawing conclusions together and marching arm-in-arm towards this better reality in the future becomes so much more important.

Michael Krigsman: The emotional aspects, emotional quotient, emotional intelligence aspects of communication and collaboration have become, can we say, table stakes today to achieve CIO greatness?

Peter High: I think so. Yeah, Michael, I don't think that that's too much of an overstatement. If in fact, the CIO has taken his or her rightful place as a true chief in the organization—

By the way, I mentioned earlier that very few in the initial stages reported to CEOs. For six or seven years now—according to my friends in the executive recruiting space—it has been the primary, the predominant relationship, which is itself a great sign as to that leader becoming a true chief, a peer of the rest of the chiefs.

If, in fact, that's going to be the case, one needs to have that, exude that empathy, and understand the kind of psychological aspects, frankly, of being a great leader: motivating a team, asking them to make great change, and do new things that were not part of their purview previously. As I say, massaging the egos of a great number of other executives who are going to be necessary to move with them in order for success to be achieved. Absolutely, I would say that that's a key ingredient.

CIO investment and innovation

Michael Krigsman: Peter, how should CIOs think about the way they invest today in order to help drive the company and drive their role towards that goal or that paradigm archetype of CIO greatness that we've been talking about?

Peter High: The flexibility one has from a financial perspective, naturally, is different today than it was a year and a half ago and, hopefully, will be in a better situation in some months ahead once we can officially have COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. What I would say is a couple of different things.

First of all, part of the modernization that is necessary within IT means variablizing your cost structure to a much greater extent. A lot of the flexibility in IT departments have historically been minimized by virtue of the fact that there was so much hard iron that was purchased with long depreciation schedules and, therefore, the overall budget (a tremendous amount of it) was spoken for on January 1st or whenever the first day of the fiscal year was without a lot of flexibility.

It has a large role to play in variablizing what it can from among those. I think of, of course, cloud technologies and as a service technology as great examples of that – those that can scale up and scale back with greater ease.

Hopefully, although I wouldn't say that cloud computing is primarily a cost play but managing it correctly can in fact improve your cost basis, at least for some periods of time depending upon its use and how it is used. What I would say is, it's important that, as the IT leader is finding savings where one can, that a portion (if not the lion's share of that) be invested in innovation.

This is also a very interesting time to bring up that topic because, in a lot of corrections, the innovation faucet gets turned off, and innovation is a muscle. It atrophies when it is not used enough – for a long period of time. It's important to keep that faucet on, to continue to grow those muscles – to mix metaphors here.

Once we get to a new normal, the next normal, if you will, and investment cycles become more typical, perhaps, not having the innovation resources in place, mindset, and culture can be deleterious as to the impact the organization can make.

Let's face it, of course, innovation is not all about developing the next great product. It's wonderful when it is. Innovation happens in ways of finding cost savings or efficiencies by doing things better in new ways.

There are a variety of ways in which that innovation could be shaped to fit the times. But that investment portfolio that you ask about, I would say, first of all, being very responsible with the dollars you've given and shaving away where you can, where it's appropriate, but always making the case for using a portion of that savings to keep that innovation pipeline alive and growing.

Michael Krigsman: Which then begs the question, to what extent should CIOs be investing in innovation versus in the stability of existing systems? Historically, that number was so heavily weighted towards maintenance, you know, 85% or whatever it is.

Peter High: Yeah.

Michael Krigsman: Which crowds out the innovation, so what is the right balance?

Peter High: Yeah, you're right. That's precisely the sort of statistic that I was referencing as well, Michael, that if 85% of the budget is spoken for before the fiscal year has even begun, well, then how many new and innovative things can you really be doing?

Look. The ratio will be different company-to-company. I can't tell you it should be 50/50 no matter who you are and what business or industry you're in. Certainly, it should be getting closer to parity.

I think, perhaps, if done especially well, as I've seen in some cases where it's even below. I've seen some companies go from 70/30 in terms of that kind of run the business technology and flipping that over such that it's only 30%, leaving oneself a lot more budget so long as the case is made to keep some of that sacred. Some of it, no doubt, would be taken as cost savings, perhaps for the enterprise, but keeping a good portion of that as new investments to make for the future as well.

Again, it gets back to, you raised maintenance as one of the key areas. Indeed, that is one of those. Modern technology doesn't require maintenance in the same way. It actually, frankly, also disrupts the way in which we think about the teams that we're putting together and the makeup of that team as well.

There are options (options abound, really) in terms of ways in which that efficiency, that combination of modernizing the footprint of the organization to be able to do and have more flexibility for the new and the innovative. Therefore, one doesn't need to be at the bleeding edge in order to accomplish these things.

CIO investment: Balancing efficiency vs. innovation

Michael Krigsman: We have another comment from Arsalan Khan. Arsalan is a regular listener and I always appreciate your questions, Arsalan. He asks about the impact of no-code and low-code products in helping drive down costs while enabling innovation.

Peter High: This is a really interesting trend that's rising. My friends in the venture capital community, for instance, have been plowing a lot of money into companies that are supplying this.

In fact, actually, there are companies that are emerging that have been created by CIOs. Gary Hoberman, who used to be the co-CIO of MetLife, has developed a company called Unqork that provides low-code/no-code technology for organizations.

I think it is clearly part of the answer. Like so many of the modern technologies, whether it's containers and microservices, broader use of APIs, all of these, I think, are weapons that need to be introduced as part of the arsenal of the modern CIO.

But I do need to stress that a strategy needs to be there. It's not just investing in these willy-nilly. It is important to develop pilots and test cases for each to get a better understanding as to how it operates and the value that the organization can derive, what the best use cases of them are, and where they aren't. That's very important is developing the negative case, if you will, and understanding the limits of some of this technology expansion.

As I referenced before, part of the art of the possible is continued experimentation as these trends rise and determining whether or not there's an application back into the enterprise. I would certainly say that low-code/no-code is no exception to that. I believe that that needs to be a weapon in the arsenal of the modern CIO.

Michael Krigsman: If the modern CIO is first and foremost a business person, when you start talking about containers, microservices, APIs, low-code/no-code, and other detailed technology discussions, that moves out of the business person domain and deeply into the technical domain. And so, how can a CIO reconcile these two different dimensions, the business and the highly technical?

Peter High: As I alluded to earlier, as well, if a CIO is coming to the post without any sort of technology background—and I can think of several of them off the top of my head—they need to be modest enough to recognize their limitations and find other people who are going to fill in the gaps because this still is a technology role. In stating that to a greater extent it is a business role, it doesn't mean that the technology goes away. Of course, that is a fundamental part of the domain, and understanding the root of the technology—the domain, the portfolio that is currently being managed, and how that is going to be managed and modernized over time—needs to be part of what CIOs do.

As I say, if a CIO comes into the post without that ability (yet, at least) number one, they need to get a great advisor (inside or outside of the organization). Number two, they need to understand that it will take a period of time for them to be able to speak on a level playing field with the rest of the team and represent this appropriately.

That really then takes me to the third, which is a degree of learning agility, which, by the way, I think is one of the key ingredients of really any company, but certainly any IT department, given how fast trends are changing. It means thirsting for the knowledge of what's coming next, understanding it, playing around with it, drawing conclusions about it, and then translating it back with great stories and narratives as to the potential value to the rest of the organization, being that guide and translator for those who are even less technical among the rest of the staff.

That's something IT teams need to have as a basic ingredient writ large across that team. But I would say the leader (himself or herself) needs to embody that. And so, as a result of that, especially for those who are less technical, it means immersing themselves in deep training, reading, experimenting, and, frankly, collaborating with the rest of the team in order to grow that knowledge within them.

Future of the CIO role in 2021 and beyond

Michael Krigsman: We have a question from Melissa Drew on LinkedIn. She asks an important question. She says, "The role and definition of the CIO has constantly been expanding. How do you see this role expanding further in the near future (i.e., the shift of roles and responsibilities)?" In other words, where is the CIO role going in 2021?

Peter High: Indeed, I've done a story. I've done a series—both as part of my Forbes column and my podcast—on these CIO pluses. I alluded to that earlier. It's been fascinating to see the plus roles that have been added to the CIO.

A few of the prominent ones that have been growing are product-centric ones. I mentioned Shailesh Prakash at The Washington Post as an example of that, so technology and product together. Don Weinstein is another example at ADP, as somebody who has both those sets of responsibilities.

There are also leaders that are taking operations responsibilities, technology, and operations. I recently interviewed Cathy Bessant at Bank of America, who is the chief technology and operations officer, for example. Mojgan Lefebvre at Travelers holds those two posts as well.

Although it's a micro version of the rationale behind this, as you think about DevOps and the combinations of the development side of technology and the operations—not only within technology, but the broader business—there is an ability now to have a greater role to play in both of those worlds. I think that that's growing and will continue to be an adjacency that is logical for technologists to take on as well.

In my podcast last week, I interviewed Sally Gilligan, who is the chief information officer and chief strategy officer of Gap. That's a combination we've seen several times as well. The rationale behind that is, there is almost no organization within the enterprise that needs to impact every other part of the organization quite like IT.

Michael, the example I often give is, the average HR executive has the internal vector, as I mentioned before, the population of people within the company. The marketing division has an external lens, as we've talked about in a variety of different ways today as well. Great executives who lead those two parts of the business probably would understand a bit about each other's strategy, but the IT leader, by contrast, needs to breathe life into both of those and everyone in between. Where there is a lack of a good strategic planning process and hygiene, you can argue that the IT leader is maybe most disadvantaged by any sort of lack of clarity there.

Oftentimes, we're seeing CIOs fill the gap by creating a process and convening a set of conversations across the C-suite and the executive ranks and, in so doing, in essence, inserting themselves to take over that process. As I say, Sally is representative of what I've seen several times over as CIOs taking on the strategy role as well, and I think there's reason to believe there will be others who walk in her footsteps.

Michael Krigsman: What should CIOs do now to ensure that they remain relevant to their organization going through 2021?

Peter High: One of the things that I think has really been lacking in organizations has been a real understanding as to how the different parts and pieces work. Somebody who goes to get an MBA will take finance, marketing, sales, entrepreneurship, and management, accounting, et cetera. But once we join the ranks of a business, if you're in IT, do you really understand how finance is doing their job, how marketing is doing theirs?

What I would say is, the IT leader could do an enormous service for the enterprise that he or she is a part of by suggesting that there be 101 and 201 and maybe even 301 courses taught—including themselves, by the way, from a technology lens—as to: this is what we do; this is how we create value; this is the language that we use; this is what we are managing. And push the marketing executive to develop the same sort of curriculum not just for marketing's use, but for everyone's use. Do the same within finance, within a product area, and then, certainly, the products and services ought to have their own sort of training that happens with frequency as well.

I think if the IT leader were to chair that, the value that he or she would be driving would be very significant. The process, assuming that he or she is a consumer of the materials that are developed, well then, gosh, their radar will be that much more fine-tuned as to where to point the team to create the greatest value across the enterprise.

Michael Krigsman: The bottom line is, at the end of the day, it really comes down to a point you made earlier, which is, CIO greatness is not just about understanding the products but, at a fundamental level, understanding the drivers of how the business creates value for the customers, what do customers care about, and what is the business doing to meet those underlying needs that got reflected in the products.

Peter High: Very well said, Michael. Hear, hear.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, you have been watching CXOTalk. We've been speaking with Peter High. He is the author of this excellent book Getting to Nimble.

You know when I invite guests to come on CXOTalk, you should know I'm pitched constantly, endlessly, all the time. If I hold up a book and I say it's a good book, I really think it's a good book, so you should check it out.

Peter, thank you so much for taking time and for sharing your insight and experience with us today.

Peter High: Michael, it's been an honor. As I say, I've been a great fan of your work and I'm honored now to be a little bit of a part of it.

Michael Krigsman: You're very kind. Everybody, thank you for watching. For the folks who asked questions, we really appreciate your questions. We're glad that you did.

Before you go, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website. Have a great day, everybody. Take care. Bye-bye.