How to Become a Credible IT Leader

Years ago, I read an article published by management consulting company Booz & Company that described the challenges CEOs and boards face in deciding where to invest their organization’s precious resources: “CEOs and directors must deal with a new category of investments that refuse to behave typically. These investments involve information technology, and they are growing in number, breadth and scope.”

A lot has changed in 20 years, but one thing hasn’t changed: Business executives will always ask tough questions about whether IT is delivering sufficient value to the enterprise.

As digital transformation disrupts and reshapes entire industries, it is the responsibility of the chief information officer to answer those tough questions with integrity, accuracy, foresight and vision. This means it’s imperative that CIOs establish rock-solid credibility.

In today’s environment, IT has to be presented and perceived in terms related to driving business outcomes, whether it’s assimilating disparate systems from a corporate merger, building a more agile technology deployment framework, or ensuring that cybersecurity is second nature to everyone in the organization.

When CIOs clearly articulate the value of the organization’s investments in technologies and systems, they are viewed with credibility by superiors, peers and the broader organization. With credibility comes the validation to innovate and try exciting ideas to help the business thrive.

Without credibility, CIOs and their teams struggle—and often fail—to galvanize the technology and business sides into a powerful, synergistic force.

You Have to Earn It 

Building credibility, like many things in life, is easier said than done. I learned a hard lesson on credibility early in my career—one that, ironically, centered on failure.

At the time, we were working on a complex, massive, and difficult IT project, one which turned out to be a lot more difficult than initially anticipated, and we were struggling to meet the demanding deadlines. We were working weekends for months on end, and I drove into the office one Saturday morning with boxes of donuts for the team. But I could see on their faces and in their body language a level of stress that no amount of sugar would fix. I stood in front of the group and told them we were delaying the project.

Immediately, I could sense their relief. Their bodies relaxed, their jaws unclenched, and I felt the stress leaving the room. We regrouped, set new priorities and eventually delivered the project with the key functionality necessary for the business users. After we went live with the new system, our company CEO said, “I was worried how the delay may negatively impact your reputation within the company, however, the quality of delivery proved otherwise.” The business team appreciated us having the courage to delay the project because it meant the project would be done right.

That experience taught me a valuable lesson: Credibility isn’t earned by blindly charging ahead. Sometimes, you have to eat humble pie, acknowledge the reality of your situation and do what is right, rather than what would be popular. Delaying the project let the team catch their breath, clear their heads and deliver a better outcome.

A Blueprint for IT Credibility

Credibility isn’t about one-time wins or glitzy presentations. Credibility has layers to it, with each success building on previous successes. Often, IT will work on several layers at once, but building credibility requires that all of these layers build on each other. In thinking about a layered model for achieving credibility, CIOs should concentrate on four key areas. These are:

  • Superior Execution. This means ensuring you deliver on your commitments and you are taking care of the basic blocking and tackling. While business stakeholders may want eye-catching dashboards, real-time analytics, IoT innovation and more, IT must first prove it can deliver consistent results. This includes ensuring always-on availability, avoiding performance bottlenecks, enabling employee success, and identifying and eliminating security threats before data is lost or intellectual property is compromised.
  • Build Capacity to be Agile. Today’s business world is increasingly defined in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). The system architecture must be flexible, with the ability to absorb change gracefully, and where business decisions turn into solutions with speed. This is one reason so many organizations are embracing cloud models for IT, whether SaaS, IaaS, or PaaS, while building IT products on microservices-based architecture. In addition, IT teams should be autonomous and empowered agile product teams that have clear objectives and product owners. In the VUCA world, the notion of IT becoming synonymous with Product-based IT rather than Services or Project-based IT takes greater importance.
  • Be Proactive Rather Than Reactive. This involves having IT product managers who can be partners to the business and become thought leaders, with IT anticipating demand rather than just reacting to it. IT leaders and their teams have to take the time to truly understand the overall business in terms of operations and strategic goals. Only when armed with this knowledge can IT truly build comprehensive roadmaps around transformational initiatives.
  • IT as a Strategic Enabler. Rather than just functioning as a service provider, IT must be positioned as equal to any business group. Business leaders should consider IT as a driver of profits and revenue, rather than as a cost center, whereby technology is fundamentally intertwined with business strategy and IT becomes the mechanism to execute on that strategy. IT leaders must think and act like business leaders. They must have the foresight – and credibility – to help and inspire other business leaders in leveraging technology to bridge the gap between their dreams and reality.

Communication Is Integral

Across this layered model, communication must be a common theme. In fact, I encourage CIOs to over-communicate when necessary, because communication is the thread that binds these four layers together to help ensure successful IT outcomes. Good intentions, and even solid execution, can be undercut by a lack of communication. But consistent, specific communication can build credibility and impel the organization forward.

I’ll give you a real-world example. At Palo Alto Networks, we made a commitment to migrate to Google’s G Suite as our standard productivity application platform. In order to promote efficiency and develop user comfort with the new applications, we decided that our users could not use any other client software except for a short transition period of time.

We knew this would impact users, so we went out of our way to explain the what, why, how, and when. Through Slack, webinars, in person training, and how to videos, we provided continuous support and handholding. We didn’t sugar-coat the issues, nor minimize their concerns. We did a lot of listening. This kind of communication helped build IT credibility because we were committed to making our employees comfortable.

IT teams also have to find a way to say “yes” more often, rather than being depicted as the “no police.” There are aspects of IT that can be viewed as impediments by some employees, such as setting privacy controls, ensuring sound data governance and demonstrating compliance with regulatory and legal demands. But, creating a “culture of yes” can pay great dividends to IT leaders who want to build stronger ties to the business side. As our founder Nir Zuk said to me once: It is often easier to solve a problem rather than finding creative ways to say no.

Like a perfect timepiece ticking continuously 24 hours a day, every day, credible IT looks effortless and runs seamlessly. Everything just works, with little or no interruptions. But this won’t happen overnight. Like everything a CIO has to do, your ideas must be carried out with great planning, superior execution and honest feedback. If you commit yourself and your IT team to these ideals, you will have fulfilled a key element to being perceived as a leader:

Credibility.

Naveen Zutshi is the Chief Information Officer at Palo Alto Networks.

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