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How CIOs can earn a seat at the top table

Maxine-Laurie Marshall — April 2016
Herminia Ibarra, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at INSEAD business school, outlines how IT professionals can cultivate a strategic perspective.

Despite the growing ubiquity of digital technology within business, IT leaders are often still left fighting for status — or even respect — among their management peers. But according to Herminia Ibarra, a globally respected authority on leadership development, the digital revolution represents a once-in-a-career chance for CIOs to confirm their value and cement their position at the top table.

As the professor of leadership and organizational behavior at France’s INSEAD business school told I-CIO: “There isn’t a single organisation I know of today that isn’t hugely concerned with digital and its impact on business — what to do about it and how to strategize around it. This presents a huge opportunity for IT leaders, provided they’re able to frame what they have to offer, not in terms of IT but in terms of business strategy.”

To do so, tech leaders must be able to think and act outside of their operational remit and be able to demonstrate strategic thinking. “Once we start talking about the importance of having a strategic perspective the natural question that comes up is: ‘how do you get it?’” says Ibarra.

“Digital presents a huge opportunity for IT leaders to frame what they have to offer in terms of business strategy.”

It isn’t something that can be achieved by any one person on their own, Ibarra points out — nor can it be achieved through seclusion and introspection. “You can’t go into your office, shut yourself off and give yourself a couple of hours to think strategically. That’s not how it happens.”
Smart networking

The answer lies in the successful exploitation of social and business networks. In her book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Ibarra defines three types of networks that are key: operational, personal and strategic.

  • Operational networks are comprised without much effort or choice as they tend to include the people you need to engage with to get work done.
  • Personal networks are, naturally, made up of people who you choose to spend time with outside of work — including colleagues.
  • Strategic networks consist of relationships that help you to envision the future, sell your ideas and get the information needed to make that happen. It is the latter that many potential leaders fail to establish, and is arguably the most important part of leadership development. 

In order to develop this vital set of connections IT leaders will need to step out of the comfort of their departments and seek to build relationships with colleagues across the business to gain a truly strategic perspective. 

That’s not always easy, given the fixed structures of organizations. Ibarra, who is currently also a visiting professor at London Business School, puts some responsibility for fostering effective networking in the hands of the business itself. “Organizations can help a lot in terms of people’s journeys to step up to bigger leadership roles. And the best way they can help is by working [to break down] their silos. Nothing hurts a person’s leadership development more than organizations that operate in silos in which it’s very hard for people to interact with others outside of their immediate function.”

By developing vital connections across the business, IT leaders can offer the board a strategic perspective on the opportunities that digitalization presents the business — and highlight potential pitfalls. With more CEOs openly viewing digital as a business driver, and not the sole purview of IT, the call for tech leaders to expand their networks couldn’t come at a more pressing time.

As Ibarra says, in order for IT leaders to propel their way into wider business leadership roles in this watershed era, they simply must “connect the dots between what they know technologically and the opportunity that exists for the organization in its business environment.”

  • Photography: Harry Borden


First published
April 2016
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About: Herminia Ibarra
Herminia Ibarra is professor of organizational behavior, leadership and learning at INSEAD, and currently visiting professor at London Business School. Thinkers 50 named the author of ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader’ among the top 10 most influential business gurus in the world.

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