As a service organization, Save the Children wants to know the impact of its programs.

And the information it needs to gather to make that judgment differs from data typically collected by reporting software, says Sarah Angel-Johnson, the UK-based NGO’s CIO and vice president of business and technology solutions.

Using traditional measures, around project outputs, was serving neither the workers nor the children they aid as well as the organization wanted. So Angel-Johnson and her IT team have been reframing their thinking, drawing on the principles of human-centered design. They’re creating personas, including one representing children, and considering scenarios from their perspectives, asking, “What do they need?”

“It has revolutionized how we approach technology and data,” Angel-Johnson says.

Angel-Johnson, herself a practitioner of human-centered design, says she started cultivating the discipline within her technology team soon after joining the nonprofit in 2020, believing that conventional IT has often missed the mark in what it delivers.

“My view of tech is it’s a ‘how’ and we’re often missing the ‘who,’” she says. “Everyone wants to adopt tech without asking, ‘Who will use it?’”

She compares that approach to making a car engine first, without considering what the driver actually needs from the engine. “In most organizations that I’ve seen, we start with tech and it’s the wrong place to start. We need to flip it,” she adds.

Human-centered design on the rise

Angel-Johnson describes human-centered design as “a mindset that puts people at the heart of any work; it’s around empathizing with people.”

But she and others note that human-centered design is also a discipline that brings specific skills and techniques to the process of building a product or service.

Technology teams build better, more robust products and services when they have a true understanding of individuals, their needs, and their journeys, Angel-Johnson says.

“I find my results are more robust. They’re closer to what’s actually needed, and I have higher returns,” she says, adding that leveraging human-centered design principles also helps technology teams deliver faster and at lower costs — mostly because they’re hitting closer to the mark on their first delivery.

This focus on the individual — the human element — happens not by chance but by intention.

Angel-Johnson established a human-centered design approach as part of her overall transformational agenda and her digital and data global strategy. She created teams that included practitioners of human-centered design (new hires as well as upskilled employees) who are “empathizing with the users” and working with product managers and software professionals using agile development principles to turn ideas into reality.

Case in point: A team recently created a child-centered tool, which sits on Salesforce, that gathers and consolidates data to illustrate whether all the projects supporting an individual child helps meet his or her needs — something that informs Save the Children not just on a project output but on overall outcome and impact.

Although specific figures are hard to come by, analysts, researchers, and CIOs say there’s a growing interest in and adoption of human-centered design. And with good reason, as adding this discipline to technology shops creates more useful and useable products and services, they say.

To those unfamiliar with the practice, human-centered design may seem similar to user interface design or more broadly to user experience concepts. But human-centered design goes further by  putting the human at the core of the entire process, not just the interface or the experience.

That’s a change from traditional IT thinking, which historically starts with the technology, says Lane Severson, a senior director at research firm Gartner. “The prominent form in IT is machine-driven or tech-centric,” he explains.

In contrast, human-centered design starts with personas and questions around the personas’ needs, wants, and ambitions as well as their journeys, Severson says.

That, according to practitioners, is what sets human-centered design apart even from user-centered design, as user-centered design still starts with the product and then asks how users will use and experience it — rather than starting with people first.

Research shows that a shift to starting with individuals and putting humans at the heart of innovation and ideation produces measurable results. Severson points to Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey, which found that employers with a human-centric philosophy across the business saw reduced workforce fatigue by up to 44%, increased intent to stay by as much as 45%, and improved performance by up to 28%.

Despite such findings, Severson and others say many CIOs and technology teams — and organizations as a whole — have yet to adopt the approach. CIOs often have more immediate challenges to address and other workforce changes to make, such as the move to agile development.

Yet Severson says more technology shops are bringing in human-centered design and seeing good returns for their efforts.

Human-centered design in practice

Katrina Alcorn, who as general manager for design at IBM leads the software design department and design thinking practice, has been a human-centered design practitioner for more than 20 years and says it’s not only a mindset and discipline but common sense.

Still, she acknowledges the approach has been slow to catch on. “You’re creating something for a human, but more often than not we have a tendency — especially with highly technical solutions — to start with the core tech and then figure out how to get people to use it,” she says. “That’s just backwards.”

Alcorn says IBM has been strengthening its muscle in design thinking. The company now offers training and certifications, which give not only designers but others working with them a common understanding of the concept and its principles as well as the language.

“What I call discovery you might call the observe phase, so we do have to align our language to be successful,” she says, adding that technologists who are good listeners and who are curious, empathetic and open to new ideas are already demonstrating key elements of human-centered design.

But that isn’t enough to succeed — at IBM or elsewhere. “It’s not enough to hire designers and say, ‘We do design thinking,’” she says. “If companies want to be successful with human-centered design, they have to create the conditions for designers to thrive.”

Here, embedding human-centered design within the product and service teams is key. As is building out those teams with staff who are familiar with the principles, value the approach, and allow time for research and other parts of the process to happen.

“You want to bring your designers in early, in the problem-framing stage,” she adds.

Delivering human-centric results

Joseph Cevetello, who brought the approach with him when he joined the City of Santa Monica in 2017, is one such CIO doing that.

Cevetello, who had learned about human-centered design during his tenure in higher education, is a fan of the approach. “There’s no better way to get to the needs of the people, the customers,” he says. “I can’t think of any better way to approach innovation than to have that human-centered mindset.”

Cevetello, who models the approach to help instill its principles within his IT team, had staffers work on a project with the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub using the human-centered design approach to ideate solutions. That effort paid off, as Cevetello saw his team use that approach in early 2021 when developing a mobile app aimed at making it easier for citizens to connect with the city.

Like others, Cevetello says the human-centered design process all starts with empathy. “To me, empathy is the key to all of it, empathy meaning really trying to engage in a robust inquiry into who the customers are and what their challenges are,” Cevetello says, adding that one of his first tasks was getting his IT team to think in these terms. “I had to get them to think about citizens as customers and these customers have needs and desires and they’re experiencing challenges with what you’re providing. It sounds simple, but it’s very transformational if you approach it from that perspective.”

Sathish Muthukrishnan, the chief information, data, and digital officer at Ally Financial, also believes in the value of human-centered design and the need to start by asking, “What do people really want?” and “What do customers need from banking?”

“We have moved from problem-solving to problem definition,” he explains. “So we’re sitting with marketing, sales, internal engineers, finance and figuring out what we’re really trying to solve for. That is different from building something for people to buy.”

To build the capacity to do that, Muthukrishnan created an innovation lab called TM Studios, whose workers engage directly with customers, handle external research and review customer feedback. (Technology team members rotate through TM Studios to gain and enhance their human-centered design skills, Muthukrishnan notes.)

Muthukrishnan also looks for new hires with experience and skills in human-design thinking, and he offers training in the discipline for employees. Furthermore, Muthukrishnan expects his team to put human-centered design to use, starting with the inspiration phase.

“That’s where you learn from the people you service, immerse yourself in their lives, find out what they really want, emphasize with their needs,” he says. That’s followed by ideation — “going through what you learned and how Ally can use that to meet their needs” — and then implementing the actual product or service.

Muthukrishnan says these tactics ensure “what you’re delivering is most useful and extremely usable for the consumers you’re building for,” adding that the approach enables his team to consider all potential solutions, not just a favored technology — or even technology at all.

Ally’s conversational AI for customer calls is an example of the results. Ally Assist, as it is called (“We don’t trick people into thinking it’s a person,” Muthukrishnan says), will transfer customer calls about Zelle money transfer issues to a live person because Muthukrishnan’s team recognized through its focus on customers “that those are issues that need a human interface.”

“That,” Muthukrishnan adds, “is human-centered design.”

Design Thinking, Software Development

Coding has been an educational trend in Africa for many years, and schools and movements have been created in response to a pressing need and necessity in the digital age. It’s still the case today, except entrepreneurs and companies are now beginning to adopt tools to create applications and develop services that don’t require coding. Those who have taken the plunge are trying to maximize the vast potential of these tools by further educating as many people as possible about them in a continent where the familiarization of digital techniques is not advanced.

Some African entrepreneurs have embarked on a mission to universalize these tools since many ICT professionals report that digital illiteracy in Africa is still a concerning reality.

In its 2021 study on the state of low-code/no-code development around the world and how different regions are approaching it, US cloud computing company Rackspace Technology said that in the EMEA region, the use level is below the global average.

The report shows that the biggest barrier to adoption in this region may be skepticism about the benefits, and of all regions, EMEA is the least likely to say that low-code/no-code is a key trend. It’s also the only region where unclear benefits constitute one of the top three reasons for not adopting low-code/no-code.

“It’s possible that organizations in EMEA don’t have as many models for successful low-code/no-code implementation because EMEA organizations that have implemented it may not be seeing its biggest benefit,” the report says. “Forty-four percent say the ability to accelerate the delivery of new software and applications is a benefit — the lowest percentage of any region.”  

Some West African countries, such as Benin, understand that low-code/no-code tools are innovative and disruptive to the CIO community, but not universally trusted. “The general idea is that low-code/no-code is not yet mature enough to be used on a large scale because of its application to specific cases where security needs and constraints are low,” says Maximilien Kpodjedo, president of the CIO Association of Benin and digital adviser to Beninese president Patrice Talon. “These technologies are at the exploratory or low-use stage.”

However, he notices interest in these technologies is growing among CIOs.

“We have commissions working and thinking about innovative concepts, including a commission of CIOs,” says Kpodjedo. “Even if there were projects, they’re marginal at this stage. This could change in the near future, though, thanks to the interest generated.”

But some other entrepreneurs have taken advantage of it and want others to benefit from what they’ve seen in these tools. Actors and leaders of incubators and educational movements are doing what they can for the sake of those in both technological and non-technological sectors.

Many become coaches or consultants of low-code/no-code for companies while others within incubators or movements lead awareness and training on these technologies.

It’s almost child’s play for some entrepreneurs who use it to automate trivial tasks or create internal software for their companies. They don’t need to be experts in coding or even have deep knowledge of ICT. They sometimes come across a technology by chance and end up adopting it because they see its importance and benefits.

This is a reality described by Kenyan Maureen Esther Achieng, CEO of Nocode Apps, Inc., who got into non-coding technologies by following the advice of Mike Williams, otherwise known as Yoroomie, a friend who built and launched online marketplace community for music studio rentals Studiotime in one night using no code.

“Since then, through constant self-study and countless mentorships from some of the best coaches in the global no code space, I’ve helped hundreds of people get started in technology,” she said.

Achieng has now taken up technology as her “divine mission.” Her company specializes in training non-technical entrepreneurs and start-ups, and she teaches people how to leverage no code technology to launch their applications and websites in hours without writing code or hiring developers.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, software engineer Bigurwa Buhendwa Dom also discovered no code from a relative.

“I had no idea that such technology could exist or at least be so advanced,” he says. “As a software engineer, setting up a working application or even a demo is a real challenge. It takes months or years in some cases. I was fascinated by the speed with which you can build a prototype or a trial version with such a technology, which immediately reduces costs and allows you to test the idea in the market.”

He now offers independent consultations in his country where he has noticed that most people don’t know what it’s about.

A simple environment for companies

Public and private companies also see an opportunity for these services. In Cameroon, for instance, the land credit authority is banking on an agile platform in low code adapted to the needs of application development, as well as the supply of licenses necessary to implement such a platform, how it’s operated, and the production of reports.

In Senegal and Gabon, the French multinational Bolloré Transports and Logistics uses Microsoft’s Power Platform solution to provide employees who use it with a simple environment to create application software without going through traditional computer programming, according to Microsoft, which supported teams with training workshops beforehand, adding that this low-code/no-code approach has enabled Bolloré employees to develop their creativity by appropriating the application creation tools, and move toward faster, more intelligent and optimized processes.

For Jean-Daniel Elbim, director of digital transformation at Bolloré, these tools allow the operational staff to be given more control, but also to bring more agility to the local teams.

“Obviously, the data must be managed,” he says. “We need to define a framework, and there needs to be a group of experts at central level, available to respond to local issues.”

Evangelization and altruistic services

In Chad, ICT expert Salim Alim Assani is co-founder and manager of WenakLabs, a media lab and tech hub incubator described as a niche of Chadian geek talent. According to him, low code is part of daily life of the group’s entrepreneurs.

“We use this tool to set up websites and minimum viable products for our entrepreneurs,” he says. “It’s a real success on projects that don’t require a lot of customization in terms of functionality, from showcase sites to simple mobile applications, for example. We offer a lot of training in this area too. In the framework of certain projects, we’ve initiated 50 young women to the use of low code, particularly the design of websites with WordPress. In the same context, we’re training 25 digital referents, whose daily professional life will be centered on low code. We also regularly organize awareness-raising events on the issue.”

Sesinam Dagadu also makes extensive use of no code at SnooCode, a digital localization solution in Nigeria. Based in London, he’s the founder and CTO of this alphanumeric system that allows addresses to be stored, shared and navigated, even without internet or cellular access.

“I think the biggest place we haven’t used code is on our website,” he says. “We’re creating systems to allow people who build on top of SnooCode to do so using no-code technologies.”

Going ahead without expensive developers

Dagadu appreciates he could do without a developer to use these tools even though he initially used one, which incurred a lot of cost.

“At first we had to employ a web developer who did a lot of work, but it looks horrible using technology like Square Space,” he says. “In Africa, development costs are very high and can only be tackled by companies with a lot of funding. But with the growth of low-code/no-code, more people with bright ideas can bring them to life without the need for expensive developers.”

He noted that because of the popularity problem in Africa of these tools, people believe that every time they have an idea to implement an application or technology, they have to resort to an application developer. But by coding less or not at all, there’s an easier entry into hard code according to WenakLabs’ Assani. “It’s a way to be visible quickly, to offer your services to the world without resorting to the skills of a developer. Above all, you learn through experimentation.”

He sees this as an opportunity to widen the pathway to digital access and entry across Africa. Indeed, entrepreneurs believe these tools will democratize technology and resolve many issues. “This democratization could allow Nocode Apps to be used to solve the most difficult problems not only in Kenya but in Africa in general,” says Achieng. “African problems need technology because the population is young, tech-savvy and uses the internet a lot, so it’s in the interest of Africans to get on board and have more proactive and knowledgeable leadership, especially in IT, to make wise decisions that reflect the speed at which technology and business are changing.”

Africa, Emerging Technology, Innovation, No Code and Low Code

Veeam is all set to shift its selling strategy to appeal to CIOs with performance guarantees that could penalize the data replication, backup and recovery company if it fails to meet agreed-on outcomes.

“CIOs more and more seek outcomes, not just services,” said Anand Eswaran, CEO at Veeam. “They need to hedge their risks. They are starting to demand outcomes from their technology providers. If it is a vendor in backup and recovery area, historically, you would simply charge for a backup solution. Going forward, you’ll need a recovery outcome, and you’ll be paid based on the recovery outcome or you’d be penalised.”

Veeam has already been working on an outcome-based engagement with select clients, where it helps them meet stringent business continuity requirements with an RTO/RPO (recovery time objective and recovery point objective) of less than 15 minutes. “We are now trying to formalize this and letting people know that this actually something you should focus on,” Eswaran said. 

In an outcome-based engagement, Veeam’s global systems integrator (GSI) partners work with end customers to understand their business objectives—such as their RTO/RPO requirements, appetite for data loss and time loss in case of an incident—and then work backward to build the data architecture required to meet the objectives.

“On top of our product, we work with our GSI partners to make sure the architecture, the workflow, and the processes put in place are the right ones to meet the customer objectives. Currently, there are no penalties clauses in these contracts but that’s where CIOs are trying to push on and that’s where we are thinking through this,” Eswaran said. 

While Eswaran refused to give the exact timeline of the official launch of the new offering, he said it will be a part of the company’s larger objective of doubling its market share and expanding its revenue from the current $1 billion to $10 billion.

Veeam eyes 25% market share

Veeam, which is one of the very few data replication players in the market continuing to see growth momentum, came out as the close second behind Dell Technologies in IDC’s semi-annual software tracker for data replication and protection for the second half of 2021, with about 12% market share. The company is now betting on innovations such as outcome-based engagement to more than double that market share to more than 25% and expand its revenue tenfold.

Eswaran is confident that despite economic headwinds, the company will continue to win new business and expand its product lines, given the continued risks posed by ransomware attacks. “It’s true that companies are being more cautious with macroeconomic environments in play, there are pauses in capital expenditure, hiring etc. But the reality is given what’s happening with the geopolitical environment, the nation state actors are on the rise, malicious actors are on the rise. This category of ransomware, data protection, ability to recover data without delay is now a board priority, not just an infrastructure admin or IT priority,” Eswaran said.

Eswaran agrees, though, that the goal of achieving 25% market share is very ambitious. “We are talking about more than doubling our market share, which is pretty ambitious, pretty aggressive, but we feel very confident about that for a variety of reasons. First, we are on a steady increase of market share over the past two-three years. So, if we just execute as we have been on product innovation, we will see us cross 20% market share in not very distant future,” he said.

Over the past few years, Veeam has been aggressively expanding its product portfolio—it launched native backup for Microsoft 365, native backup for GCP, native backup for Azure, and is expected to soon launch native backup for Salesforce. “Microsoft 365 alone is billions of dollars of total addressable market for us. This accelerated pace of innovation is also one of the reasons why we are going to take several points of market share, beyond execution,” Eswaran said.

Backup and Recovery, Technology Industry

CIO, the old wisecrack has it, stands for “career is over.” It’s a profession that’s fraught with ways to be forcibly escorted from your prestigious office and down to Human Resources to be walked through your severance package, and from there, after having signed mutual non-disparagement and non-compete agreements, along with a few other bits and pieces of paperwork, out the door to try your hand at a life of enforced leisure.

If this — living a life of leisure, supported by severance checks until they run out — is what you have in mind, here are seven popular ways to turn your employer into the most recent entry in the job-history section of your LinkedIn profile.

Or maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to experience this relaxing fate. Maybe you love your job (or hate looking for the next one) enough that you welcome new ways to stay where you are, to continue earning a living with a salary, not severance checks.

If that’s your goal, familiarize yourself with these job-termination traps so you can keep on keepin’ on.

1. Arguing about … just about anything. Don’t do it.

As CIO you’re responsible for what is, in most companies, the hardest-to-understand business function in the organization. That often means you recognize the need to invest budget and effort into arcana like IT’s integration architecture, platform and application lifecycle management, and AI-based information security, to name three items among many.

Because they’re hard for folks who aren’t steeped in the mysteries of our trade to understand, the executive leadership team (ELT) might be suspicious about these expenditures, calling them “technology for technology’s sake” or some other popular expression of skepticism.

As they are clearly on the wrong side of truth and righteousness, you might find yourself tempted to argue with them. But unlike discussions and conversations, arguments end up with one winner and one loser. Guess which one you get to be. And being perceived as argumentative doesn’t score you any points either.

One more thing: The CFO is the ELT member most likely for the CIO to argue with. Also the most potentially hazardous to a CIO’s career health.

2. Mis-defining or mis-managing the business/IT relationship

Lines-of-business leaders aren’t your customers. They’re your peers and collaborators in creating competitive advantage, or, if times are tough, in avoiding the creation of competitive disadvantages. Stress this as everyone’s shared goal in every conversation you have with your fellow executives. Because if they’re your customers they’ll think they’re always right, which means you can’t fail to disappoint them.

Then make sure everyone who deals with IT finds the experience as pleasant as possible. Because if they don’t like you, they won’t collaborate with you, and might decide it would all be better with someone else at IT’s helm.

3. Failing to keep critical projects on track

Projects are how organizations make tomorrow different from yesterday in an intentional way. IT’s name tends to be on any project that involves information technology, even for projects whose true focus is business change (all of them).

Which means that when projects fail, IT’s name — your name — will probably be on the failure. Failed strategic projects are a great way for CIOs to become ex-CIOs.

And, by the way, if you needed this article to point this out to you, you probably need more guidance on how to succeed as a CIO than you can get from one magazine article.

Just sayin’.

4. Failing to invest in fault-tolerant infrastructure

Every member of the ELT shops on, which means every member of the ELT is frequently exposed to a company whose systems never, so far as they can tell, ever go down. So they know six-sigma levels of system reliability are possible.

If your systems aren’t as reliable, or at least nearly so, buh-bye!

5. Ransomware

Once upon a time, information security failures were merely expensive and embarrassing. No more. They’re now life-threatening — for real if your company is in the healthcare business; metaphorically if not because (do you really need me to explain this?) ransomware attacks can put a company out of business.

Completely securing your systems from ransomware attacks probably isn’t possible. But securing them well, and with what might be termed a “high-recoverability architecture,” is something IT can achieve. Even more important is creating a ransomware response playbook and exercising it on a regular basis.

Because if your company is attacked, your response playbook is what demonstrates that IT knows what it’s doing and that everything is under control.

If instead your response is to panic, everyone panics. After which, buh-bye!

6. Ignoring bad managers

The managers who report to you are the people who deliver the results you get the credit or blame for. This is recursive — they have supervisors who deliver these results to them; supervisors have staff.

Managers at all levels are responsible for organizing how work gets done so it gets done right; they’re responsible for creating the organizational listening mechanisms they need to make sure they know it’s getting done right, and so on.

They’re also responsible for creating the sort of work environment that encourages employees to stay, and, even better, to recommend you to their friends.

Put simply, CIOs who want to keep their jobs create organizations people want to be part of.

Just in case the point isn’t clear: We live in an era in which even well-intentioned conversations can be misunderstood as hostile and harassing speech, and “But they shouldn’t find what my manager said offensive,” isn’t going to gain you much sympathy in HR.

You might think the key letters in “microaggression” are “m i c r o.” But in most organizations, grousing that an aggrieved employee should have a thicker skin and better sense of humor is an excellent way for a CIO to get on the severance gravy train.

7. Failing to keep an eye on your protégé

Having to keep an eye out for bad managers is enough of a challenge. Good managers can be even more of a threat, because not only do they very likely want your job, even worse, they might be qualified for it.

Not only that, they might be in a good position to get it, too, as they’ll be in a perfect situation to take credit for your shared successes while keeping any of the other missteps and blame storms squarely on your desk.

Seven steps to heaven?

As CIO you have one more thing to look out for, and it just might be the most promising one: Get yourself promoted. Yes, yes, yes, in principle all members of the ELT are created equal, and a CIO isn’t likely to be the next CEO.

But COO? CIOs have lots of opportunity to prepare themselves for running a business’s operations. Even better, having a highly competent protégé stops being a fraught and becomes one more way you’re the right person for the job when it becomes available.

CIO, IT Leadership

During the opening keynote at the recent Gartner IT Symposium in Barcelona, Gartner analysts said that CIOs should look to its latest moniker, IT for sustainable growth, to drive business transformation by focusing on three key strategies: ‘revolutionary work’ to empower the workforce, ‘responsible investment’ to balance financial and sustainability objectives, and ‘resilient cybersecurity’ to support business outcomes “without constraining them”.

Gartner’s managing VP Mary Mesaglio said she remained optimistic for tech investments, with the latest crisis offering CIOs yet another opportunity to “make the difference”. But released the next day, the 2023 Gartner CIO and Technology Executive Survey revealed that EMEA-based CIOs expect IT budgets to increase 4.4% on average over the next year, somewhat lower than the projected 6.5% global inflation rate.

The report, which surveyed over 2,000 respondents across 81 countries, says that EMEA CIO business priorities for the remainder of 2022 and next year are growth and digital transformation, with the top areas of increased spending in 2023 including cyber and information security (70%), business intelligence and data analytics (53%), and cloud platforms (48%). Approximately 34% are increasing investment in artificial intelligence (AI) and 24% in hyper-automation as well.

Revolutionise work

Gartner has identified three ‘force multipliers’ that CIOs should focus on to help make their organisation an employer of choice, and to create sustainable performance in the workplace:

Take the friction out of work: Friction is when work is unnecessarily hard and degrades employee performance and staff retention. By removing it and investing in digital skills, analysts believe organisations can create a more engaged workforce that’s better equipped to sustain future performance.Invest in AI augmentation: Employees require tools and technologies that empower them and increase the impact of their work. Analysts say AI can increase the impact of employees by extending their reach, range and capabilities.Experiment with the “highly visible and highly hyped”: Gartner repeatedly pointed out that organisations that innovate during tough economic times “stay ahead of the pack”, with Mesaglio in particular calling for such experimentation to be public and visible. Gartner believes one such area for innovation is in the fusion between remote and office working, with the ‘intraverse’ representing a virtual office incorporating emerging metaverse technologies to bring employees together in immersive meetings. Highlighting perhaps the nascency of such technologies, Gartner predicts that immersive meeting technologies will not plateau on its renowned Hype Cycle chart for up to 10 years.

Citing its own research, which found that only 31% of employees have the technology they need to do their jobs properly, Gartner analysts also believe that a greater collaboration between IT and HR, and better technology in the workplace, could lead to an improved employee experience that would, in-turn, benefit staff retention.

“This provides a tremendous opportunity for CIOs to make the difference,” said Mesaglio. “Employers who revolutionise the work and empower their workers with technology will become the employers of choice.”

Responsible investment

Gartner’s latest data from its board of directors survey shows that its top focus area is the economy, but IT for sustainable growth does at least hint at CEOs, boardrooms and CIOs being in unison about marrying financial performance with environmental impact.

“Sustainable growth in traditional financial terms means growth that is repeatable without taking on financial debt,” said Daniel Sanchez-Reina, VP analyst at Gartner. “But sustainable growth is more than just financial results. It also includes ethical and environmentally sustainable growth. Now, let’s add IT into the mix. IT for sustainable growth is a set of digital investments that delivers repeatable financial results in an efficient and responsible way.”

Gartner identified three more force multipliers that will create both financial and sustainability returns:

Intelligent connected infrastructure (ICI): Equating intelligent connected infrastructure to an air traffic control system for smart city infrastructure, Gartner says ICI combines mesh fabric, AI, IoT, cloud, analytics and edge computing to share data among otherwise ‘silent’ infrastructure, such as bridges, roads and ports. Investing in ICI would supposedly increase growth for cities and businesses, and improve the lives of citizens.Leverage autonomous sourcing: In a bid to drive more value from the vendor ecosystem, and seemingly move away from laborious RFPs, Gartner says that autonomous sourcing would use AI, machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) to give organisations access to a much wider range of suppliers – and purchase in a “more sustainable, profitable way.” Sanchez-Reina suggested this was putting procurement in a shaker to find the best supplier and service.Digitally reduce energy usage: Gartner believes that CIOs should use cloud, data and analytics to establish a “base load” – an overview of how much energy the organisation has consumed. The company also calls on IT leaders to implement an energy and optimisation system (EMOS) to reduce energy usage by making proactive, data-led decisions in near real-time, with EMOS able to reduce energy use by up to 15%, and for IT leaders to sell energy back to the grid when combining microgrids with advances in ML and AI.

Sanchez-Reina also described such investment as a two-for-one strategy, bringing together financial performance with an organisation’s environmental and social values, thereby appeasing customers, employees and investors. But a timeline for when this concept will become an everyday reality for most organisations remains to be seen when today most CIOs are struggling to get on top of sustainability.

Resilient cybersecurity

Despite the clamour for new digital investments, Gartner’s analysts did recognise that this would represent a new cybersecurity risk, with some attributing the increased spending in security over the next year down to ongoing uncertainty regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A 2022 Gartner survey of board directors found that 88% of boards now view security as a business risk, not just a technical one, meaning that “organisations need to start treating resilient, sustainable cybersecurity as a business risk that needs new types of investment,” said Ed Gabrys, VP analyst at Gartner.

Three more force multipliers identify competitive advantages for organisations in the long term:

Manage the attack surface: Gartner says external attack surface management (EASM) can discover vulnerable external-facing assets. The firm also calls on CIOs to implement software composition analysis to get visibility into software supply chain vulnerabilities, and leverage maturing threat intelligence platforms to prioritise and fix them.Protect business outcomes and customers: Organisations should prioritise their most important business outcomes by identifying technology dependencies that have a direct line of sight to their most important business or mission outcomes.Use outcome-driven metrics and protection-level agreements: Outcome-driven metrics attempt to align security concerns with business impact, so the organisation can decide its risk appetite and how much it wants to invest to solve the problem, like patch management, for instance. Gartner is benchmarking 16 ODMs that organisations can use to compare their protection levels to their peers. This creates an outcome-based priorities and investments roadmap. “Organisations should invest in achieving protection-level outcomes, not the implementation of tools,” says Gartner.Artificial Intelligence, Digital Transformation, Innovation, Machine Learning

We live in a world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) can either paralyze you with fear or energize you with unlimited opportunities. Because of this, leadership matters more than ever. And no organization develops leaders, at scale, better than the military.

For a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, I sat down with three transformational leaders who started their careers in the military: Mike Goodwin, CIO of PetSmart and a former Army officer; DiAnna Thimjon, a strategic advisor to CxOs, four-time CIO/CTO and former Army officer; and Woody Groton, CIO of Draper and a former Army officer who is currently a Brigade Commander for the Army National Guard.

During our wide-ranging conversation, we explored the foundation of leadership practices and philosophies they gained from their military experience and how those lessons have continued to serve them well in their civilian careers. Afterwards, we spent some time focusing on key tenets today’s emerging leaders can apply to develop and grow in their careers. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Dan Roberts: DiAnna, what would you say is the biggest or hardest shift to make as you are rising up the ladder from manager to director?

DiAnna Thimjon, strategic advisor to CxOs

DiAnna Thimjon

DiAnna Thimjon: It’s a different role as you shift from manager to director. It’s realizing your entire organization is essentially run by someone else tactically, so really backing off and letting them fail or succeed on their own. And then you have to figure out how to focus very differently on alignment, making sure all the leaders are on the same page, because now you have really good leaders and they’re all running in different paths.

In IT especially, managers tend to want to hang on to some of the hands-on work after they become directors, and that’s often because they’re promoted due to skill, not leadership. So suddenly they find themselves at a director level and they’re just a really good engineer. They don’t have any other tool in their toolkit except doing it themselves. So it’s hard for them to let others own things completely.

It’s really important to get a good mentor or someone in place to help them. Usually what you hear is the horror stories, where someone fails miserably and then they learn and pick themselves up and go again. We’ve got to find a way to prevent that.

Mike, you’ve referred to middle management as the key pivot point in leadership. What do you mean by that, and what causes people to get stuck in the middle?

Mike Goodwin, CIO, PetSmart


Mike Goodwin: This is really a transition point when you go from directly leading the team that’s doing the work to leading leaders. It can be challenging to work through that, because you’re kind of the glue in the organization, when you really think about it. You’re holding the senior team as well as the first line. You’re translating back and forth between those two, so you have to effectively be able to coach up and coach down. You have to tailor your communication from first line to senior management. You have to tailor your communication for the type of audience, the type of content.

You also have to figure out how to escalate issues and how to put frameworks in place that give you visibility to what’s going on. Because you’re not going to be meeting with the direct team on a day-to-day or weekly basis in a lot of cases. So you have to put in place scorecards or ways to get the visibility to make sure that things are on track and try to determine where your attention has to occur and be able to focus on that.

If you can do that effectively, that’s the point that can launch your career, and you’ll continue to go forward because you’re going to constantly hone those skills. If you can’t effectively do that, then that’s where this ‘stuck in the middle’ comes in and you aren’t able to elevate out of that point and you really are performing more as a micromanager of the leaders.

As DiAnna mentioned, we have to do more to prepare and develop middle managers. What you’re doing with The TechLX is a good example, because a lot of leadership development is targeted for that first time manager or for that senior-level person, and yet there is a unique set of leadership skills that needs to be honed in training for that middle manager.

Drawing on what we can learn from the military, what are some of the specific leadership tenets IT organizations need to be focusing on? Woody, you’ve mentioned speak truth to power, lead upward, tolerate honest mistakes but don’t tolerate integrity violations.

Woody Groton, CIO, Draper


Woody Groton: To expand on Mike’s point, in the military, you have leadership training at every step of your career, from the basic course up to senior service college and even beyond for general officers. That next-generation leader training is so important, and it’s something we’ve used with great success at Draper.

When it comes to specific leadership tenets, the four Cs of military leadership are candor, commitment, courage, and competence. So speaking truth to power: You have to have that, you have to have that candor, both up and down, and the commitment and the courage to be able to do that, because it’s not easy to tell the boss that this isn’t right, or this is something that I’m seeing that there’s an issue. But the best leaders will take that advice and try to impact change on it.

That’s leading upward as well. Organizational-level leaders don’t have all the answers. They’re providing that vision, that commander’s intent, what the desired end state is, and it’s really up to the subordinate leaders to then figure out how are you going to make that happen. And the more that we can do that in the civilian world, the better. Don’t micromanage. Our new CEO has been really great on that: You’re the CIO. I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. You recommend to me what technology can do to help transform our business.

As for tolerating honest mistakes, people are going to make mistakes and you can’t punish them because they made a human honest mistake. The thing that’s important is to learn from that mistake and move forward. And learn from your peers’ mistakes. Now, if you continue to make those same mistakes, that’s when it’s going to become an issue.

The integrity piece — in the military, it’s life or death. But even in the civilian world, if you don’t have integrity, you can’t be trusted. You lose trust, whether that’s with your leadership or your subordinates. They’re going to see right through that. Another part of it is taking action for the good of the organization when someone doesn’t have integrity.

In today’s world, do you think we need people to be more “versatilists” than specialists?

Goodwin: I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think we need both. You do want some specialists for those deep areas where you are going to have to rely on that to get you out of trouble or get things done. But those are probably not the lion’s share. You definitely want more versatilists, because you need to be able to have breadth, and things are so interconnected nowadays. You can’t do anything in isolation anymore, especially in the IT field.

Groton: David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World talks about the value of this. One example he uses is Roger Federer and how he played a lot of different sports before he focused on tennis, and that made him a better tennis player.

In the military, you were always given new jobs based on your potential. You might not have ever had any experience with that, but they know you’re a good leader, you have the potential and you can go in. And of course, you’ve got technical staff and others that can support you.

DiAnna, that’s something I see reflected in your career path. You didn’t seek out certain industries — you sought out problems to solve.

Thimjon: I don’t think I did it with the intention of being disruptive in a career pattern, but to your point, I sought out opportunities that interested me. When I was in the Army, I did all kinds of jobs and worked in such different roles, and I really liked that. I like the idea that I don’t get surfaced the same problem tomorrow that I got today.

When I started at my first company, I was out in a distribution facility managing a group of people who selected cards and put them in boxes. I got an opportunity to go into sales in a technologist role, and I remember a very senior leader pulling me aside and saying, ‘You really need to pick a pillar. You should stay here.’ But I thought, I’m kind of bored with this particular thing. I’d really like to see what else there is in this company.

In that process, I got a chance to do some really hard, wonderful jobs. I learned how a retail CPG company runs. Eventually I ended up in Mike’s organization in IT. I went from there to a number of places, from federal contracting to a law firm. I was in a mutual fund company. My last job, I was the CIO for a company that stood up humanitarian centers for Afghanis and unaccompanied minors at the border. We stood up IT on the spot in that moment.

I offer that to say that there’s a lot of greatness in diversity. Each one of those, though, needed almost the same kind of leader. They needed someone who could come in and put some structure in place. They needed someone who was interested in hard problems. They needed someone who could be a leader. I kept hearing over and over, ‘We don’t really need a technologist. We really need leadership. The team needs leadership.’

Woody, I love your statement that perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. What does that mean when it comes to leading others?

Groton: Force multiplier is kind of a military term. If you have an infantry unit, the force multipliers might be air support or the engineers that are going to get you across the river. In the corporate world, I think that, as leaders, we want to do that. It’s kind of a compliment I’ll use on some of the staff: You’re a force multiplier. You’re really getting in there and being that catalyst to make things better. Managers can get a 100% out of their team, but leaders can get 125%.

Being a leader is a lot like being a coach. It’s getting them to get out there and to be the best player they can be and to win games, have that enthusiasm. If you’re dwelling on the negative, you’re not going to be as successful. Always look on the bright side. Be positive. Give your staff what they need to get the job done so they can build the confidence, you have trust in them, and they trust you.

That creates that perpetual optimism, and it is a force multiplier. It means your team is going to be better than they ever could have been without that enthusiasm. Knowing that they have your support, that you’re going to be with them and they’re going to have your back. It’s just going to make you a better, more successful organization.

Tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast for a deeper dive on the foundation of leadership practices and philosophies these executives gained from their military experience and how those lessons have continued to serve them well in their civilian careers.

IT Leadership

By Ginna Raahauge, CIO at Zayo

For businesses to deliver value to customers, they must stay on top of customer challenges. At Zayo, we understand the macro trends our customers are currently facing — such as remote and hybrid work and the growing importance of user experience — have impacted how they approach business.

To get to the heart of these pain points, we sat down with CIOs and IT leaders across industries to candidly discuss where they are in their digital transformation journeys, the emerging infrastructure technologies they’re using, and their biggest fears and pressures when it comes to the future of their business. 

Here are some of the insights they shared:

On Where They Are in Their Digital Transformation Journeys

Cloud migration and hybrid cloud strategies continue to be priorities among CIOs and IT leaders, but their experiences vary. Some IT leaders are finding great success with cloud migration and hybrid cloud strategies by leveraging both for agile outcomes and back-office transformation, resulting in organizational strengthening.

“Four years ago, 80% of our workload was on-premises. Now, about 30% is on-premises. We have worked very hard to migrate all of our critical applications to the cloud, so that’s working well.” – CIO in healthcare

Others are more cautious about their cloud usage, only wanting to use it where it makes sense for their business and partners.

“We are fully in the cloud for certain technologies like mail, office, and business tasks that don’t require heavy data lifting. We are also moving some very critical business-facing apps to the cloud. But we’ve decided not to move everything just because the cloud is cool and everyone wants to have a cloud. It’s more about the benefits we can have and show to our partners at each step.” – IT leader in financial services

In review:

CIO Pain Points:How best to utilize cloud strategies for their businessesThe Way Forward:As CIOs and IT leaders decide how best to use cloud migration and hybrid cloud strategies for their business needs, enhanced SD-WAN solutions can ensure cloud migration, however it’s used, goes seamlessly. SD-WAN technology provides a managed network infrastructure that can flex with changing needs, connect all sites optimally to the cloud, and ensure that mission-critical applications run effectively at all locations.Investing in a private cloud connection can also enable seamless migrations at high bandwidth while avoiding threats of network hijacking, network congestion, and expensive egress fees.

On Emerging Infrastructure-Related Technologies to Watch

CIOs and IT leaders noted their need to protect data and other sensitive information has become more imperative in remote environments, leading them to strengthen their security with emerging technologies.

“The demand for effective end-user experience is high, so there is a need for making something with a secure edge that  can be managed remotely across thousands of the same device.” – CIO in printing technology

In review:

CIO Pain Points:Ensuring data remains protected in remote environments.The Way Forward:Employing a solution like secure access service edge (SASE) — which authenticates users, devices, and traffic as they enter and leave private networks, sites, or data centers — enables CIOs and IT leaders to manage and mitigate security threats that come with a more Internet-enabled enterprise.Implementing a zero trust remote access solution can also ensure security for all end users accessing your data.

On Their Biggest Fears and Pressures

The increasing pace of technology and rapid innovation create new pressure points for CIOs and IT leaders to keep up with customer demand.

“Being in the financial markets and attempting to be on the cutting edge suggests that our innovation needs to happen rapidly. The concept of rapid innovation requires us to constantly stay on the cutting edge in terms of resource allocation, provisioning and planning.” – IT leader in financial services

Infrastructure transformation is also a concern for CIOs and IT leaders as they work to navigate this new territory and ensure their systems can handle it.

“The movement of data centers to cloud, organizational strengthening, leveraging cloud for agile outcomes and back-office transformation requires a complete infrastructure overhaul, which is a daunting undertaking.” – CIO in printing technology

In review:

CIO Pain Points:Enabling innovations to happen quickly to keep up with customer demandTransforming infrastructure to accommodate changing business needs, like cloud migrationThe Way Forward:One essential part of transforming infrastructure and enabling fast innovation is solving latency needs with the edge. By pushing data processing closer to end users, modern enterprises can ensure they have the network performance they need to be agile and power the right infrastructure for their digital transformation needs.In order to future-proof and monitor performance of systems, another solution to consider is network intelligence. With network intelligence, companies can continuously gather and analyze data insights on their network and improve operational ability.

The insights the CIOs and IT leaders provided show the state of their digital transformation journeys, how they’re leveraging new technologies to improve their companies, and the pressures and fears they’ve experienced along the way. Their hidden insights, and the technical decisions they’ve made, can guide other organizations as they go through digital transformation.

We believe in continuously tapping and employing these learnings at Zayo to empower our customers with the solutions and infrastructure needed to move the needle from digital transformation to digital acceleration and enable them to connect what’s next.

To read the full report from Zayo, visit:

Digital Transformation, IT Leadership

CIOs need to try a lot harder these days to find IT talent, particularly when it comes to the most difficult-to-fill positions. Strategies most IT leaders are deploying include offering signing bonuses and more paid time off, being open to hiring people with different types of life experiences, and looking for cultural fit in addition to — or instead of — specific technical know-how. And some are simply looking to build the talent themselves.

“You have to be willing to hire someone who knows nothing,” advises Jim Johnson, senior vice president at recruitment firm Robert Half. “Everything we use as a skill can be learned and can be taught.”

Although it may be a stretch, it could be worthwhile to take a second look at a musician or a teacher, for instance, who wants to make a career change, especially if their previous jobs included a strong tech component. “Look for personality and a track record of success,” Johnson says, or what he calls aptitude and attitude. Ask the candidate to explain how they best learn new things, he suggests, or how they’ve done so in the past.

Not everyone is a fan of the culture-first approach. Victor Janulaitis, CEO of Janco, an IT consultancy, does not recommend it. “Yes, culture is important, but you don’t want to hire a warm body just to fill a spot,” he says. “You’d be creating a legacy disaster. You’ll spend a lot of management time bringing the person up to speed, your team’s productivity goes down, and your existing staff gets pissed off.”

Even proponents say the hiring-then-upskilling method may not work for every IT job. According to the most recent State of the CIO survey, the positions that IT leaders are having the most trouble filling this year include cybersecurity (34%), data science/analytics (23%), AI and machine learning (19%), application development (15%), and software engineering (15%). Some of these positions require solid technical chops, while others incorporate skills that can be learned.

Another hot job category these days, Robert Half’s Johnson says, is from the way-back machine: help desk professionals. “There’s a huge demand for deployment experts to acquire systems, image software, and get those into the hands of users. There’s been a bit of a change in that regard over the past few years.”

Here’s how IT leaders are currently approaching the challenge of hiring for those difficult-to-fill IT roles.

Flexibility is essential

Eduardo Ruiz, CIO at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) in Washington, DC, has had trouble finding help desk personnel, project managers who know agile methodology, and technical developers. His organization is a nonprofit, meaning he has always been in competition with larger, better-funded organizations for talent, he explains.

Not too long ago, one benefit he could offer was “tremendous flexibility” regarding remote work because his organization has been in the cloud for several years — even before the pandemic — and is now fully virtual. But today, most companies are offering the ability to work remotely, at least for part of the time if not fully. “That differentiator has vanished,” he says.

These days he’s relying more on nearshoring, “with mixed results,” he says. He needs to pay a premium for those resources, and it can take some time to onboard these employees and get them up to speed. He also needs to spend time managing the work from outsourcers. “It’s a good stopgap,” Ruiz says, although his preference is to still hire permanent staffers.

Tsvi Gal, head of enterprise technology services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, says that remote work is baked into the hospital’s culture. “We have a social agreement” that staffers can live and work anywhere in the Eastern US time zone, he explains. “But when we need you on-site for meetings, you commit to show up. No excuses, no complaining about how far away you live. You can ride a camel” as long as you get there.

“It’s a fair deal,” he says.

Although there are some jobs that can’t be done remotely — supporting the advanced robotics systems used during surgery, for one — mostly people can work from where they choose, and the hospital provides a laptop, noise-canceling headset, software, security, and other gear to help make that happen. It’s the difference, Gal says, between being “remote-tolerant” and truly “remote-friendly.”

Cast your net widely

Matt Schwartz, CTO at Sage Hospitality, was looking for a SaaS administrator who could juggle both administration and strategy for the company’s critical cloud systems, including Office 365, Boxed, Zoom, and Okta. “It was tricky to find someone” because they were looking for a specific mix of technical and business skills.

After several months, they located someone in Chicago; Sage is based in Boulder, Colo. “You have to be open to remote associates if you want to fill a specific role,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz calls this a “generational adjustment,” saying, “why live or work somewhere you hate? Life is short.” Plus, he says, allowing people to live where they want gives you a better chance of retaining staffers for longer periods of time.

Robert Half’s Johnson agrees that a national approach is the way to go. “Companies are 20 times more likely to find a top performer” when they open their search to national candidates versus local talent only, he says. It also can save money, at least for salary, depending on where the candidate lives.

Other hiring sources, Janco’s Janulaitis says, can be competitors and professional societies.

Look ahead and plan accordingly

MSKCC’s Gal reassigns existing IT staffers to new posts depending on what he thinks he’ll need in the next three to five years and which areas may be overstaffed in that same timeframe. And in the meantime, those who are moving to new posts get training and the opportunity to do the new work. “As the need starts to mount, we’ll have an internal channel of supply,” he explains.

For instance, the hospital will be unplugging its last mainframe by the end of the year. Rather than lay off existing staffers or hire other people with new skills, they’re going to reassign as many of their existing mainframe staff as possible and move them into other roles. Though Gal declines to specify what those roles will be, he says he’d rather rely on existing staffers than start over with new employees whenever he can.

When assessing candidates, Gal says, he looks at three important aspects:

Skills, which can be learned if people are willing to spend the time.Abilities, which also can be taught, but these generally take longer to learn; there can also be some innate ability in these, such as people who are naturally good at math or music.Values, which involve the type of person you are, and values “don’t change,” Gal says. “I’d rather have a person who has the right values and abilities” over specific skills.

Perks still matter

Adding extra vacation time, for instance, to existing corporate policies may be easier than changing up salary structures and other perks, Janco’s Janulatis says. Just don’t forget to assess your current employees also and make sure their benefits keep pace.

Robert Half’s Johnson says that 44% of the companies they work with are offering signing bonuses and 41% are offering more time off.

On the other hand, Janulatis says, 401k plans and other retirement plans may not be as important to younger workers as they once were. “They’d rather have cash on the barrelhead,” he explains. “They have a different set of priorities and are more interested in getting experience that helps them” in the short term instead of having to work for 10 or more years to cash out of a 401k. “Part of the hiring process is trying to isolate some of those characteristics.”

Move quickly, but don’t skip steps

“Hire for speed, and fire for speed,” Janulaitis advises. In other words, the traditional months-long hiring and onboarding process no longer works, if it ever really did. “Have metrics to measure a new employee’s performance,” he suggests, including a reasonable set of deliverables and expectations, and if they person’s not working out, let them go within a week or two.

Sage Hospitality’s Schwartz says they’ve truncated their hiring process and do fewer interviews in less time — say, two rounds over two weeks, with more panel interviews and fewer one-on-ones. For this to work well, he says, you need to figure out who the “critical” interviewers are.

In today’s ultra-competitive market, hiring success will “probably come down to who’s willing to move quickest and give an offer,” Robert Half’s Johnson says. The trick, he says, is to move quickly but don’t hurry. And, as always, don’t neglect the reference and background checks.

Tap into the local college scene

ASPPH’s Ruiz is also working more proactively with local colleges and universities, particularly for entry-level jobs in the analytics space. “We didn’t have to do that” several years ago, he says. He’s also working with multiple recruiters, instead of relying on only one, and advertising on different social media venues popular with younger workers. He’s also “hiring green and training up,” particularly for developers.

Community colleges are also great resources for retraining existing IT staffers and connecting with another stream of potential candidates.

Offer meaningful work and create a healthy culture

“We always hire for culture first,” not technical qualifications, Sage Hospitality’s Schwartz says. “The more ‘qualified’ person may not be a good fit.” Further, he says, “If it’s not a good culture, candidates aren’t interested, no matter what you pay.”

Culture includes providing a safe work environment that nurtures collaboration, and investing in people for training and certification. It might also include paid time off to do volunteer work of the employee’s choosing, as well as flex time to accommodate family needs.

One way ASPPH’s Ruiz says he can compete with the tech giants and others is to offer candidates meaningful work in the public health field, a need that’s “unfortunately been highlighted by the pandemic,” he says. “We teach the future Faucis of the world,” he says, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the epidemiologist who has often been the public face of Covid-19 policy in the United States.

MSKCC’s Gal agrees. “We can’t guarantee that everyone will be able to work on the next algorithm to help cure cancer. But we can offer an intellectual and technology challenge, and meaningful work, not just the money, and the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in the world.”

It’s also a matter of showing how the work that individuals are doing contributes to the whole, Gal explains. “We all celebrate” when a significant milestone is reached, whether it’s saving lives with a new research protocol or helping make the hospital and the people who work there more productive.

At the end of the day, Gal says, just about every organization has a sign somewhere about putting their people first. “But it’s not enough to just have a slogan; you need to live it,” he advises. “Do you actually act as if it’s important? People are smart and will know if you mean it or are just saying it.”

Hiring, IT Training 

A transformer, teambuilder, and trailblazer, Michelle McKenna founded her executive advisory firm, The Michelle McKenna Collaborative, after spending 10 seasons as the National Football League’s first-ever CIO and its first female C-level executive. Those are just two of the many “firsts” McKenna has accomplished over the course of her career, which has also included executive leadership roles at Disney and Universal Orlando Resort. While at the NFL, she drove digital transformation, launched new businesses, and, among other feats, pulled off the virtual 2020 NFL Draft at the height of the COVID pandemic — in just three weeks.

A 2022 CIO Hall of Fame inductee, McKenna knows what it takes to think differently about the possibilities of technology and how to forge a powerful legacy of digital leadership. On a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, we unpacked some of the unique moments from her career, the challenges and lessons learned, and why she believes CIOs need to focus on developing the human side of technology to accomplish big, bold things. Afterwards, we spent some time talking about a few keys to her success. What follows is that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Dan Roberts: You’re known for your grit. How do you define grit?

Michelle McKenna: I have heard grit described many ways. When I apply it to myself, I think about how hard I am willing to work. No job is too small or beneath me. I also never forget where I came from, a small town in Alabama. It takes a certain amount of grit to get from where I started. But I also think it’s about knowing when it’s time to go and conquer new things and give someone else a turn. That doesn’t make you a quitter; that makes you smart and resilient so that you are built for the long haul.

How do you know when to keep charging down the field and when it’s time to throw in the towel?

A good example is my experience at Disney. I grew up thinking I wanted to work at Disney, and eventually, I got to work there — a dream come true — and I was blessed to be one of the top talent who were given the opportunity to work in many different roles in the company. When I joined, I had just begun to think about my MBA and was seriously considering leaving the workforce and taking on the debt to go to Harvard Business School.   

At the time, a very influential person in my life, Al Weiss, the former president of worldwide operations for Disney Parks and Resorts, told me that staying at Disney and being a part of this management rotation would be better than a Harvard MBA. I will never know if he was right, but I do know I have managed to have a successful career, beyond my wildest hopes and dreams. The Disney alum crew looks out for each other, and I am so happy to have had that experience.  In the end, Disney paid for my MBA at Crummer Graduate School of Business in Orlando. So I didn’t get to go to Harvard, but something better came along — this amazing career shift that took me into technology.

I steadily grew at Disney and was put in charge of many new things, including, at the time, the largest technology transformation the company had ever done. I wanted to continue growing and applied for the top role — and didn’t get it.  It went to an external hire, someone who had been a CIO for many years. I understood their rationale, but I knew that was my cue to go where someone would give me a shot at the top job. So I think grit is also knowing when to go. Resilience — and how to build resilience for yourself is a big part it — knowing when to stop pushing something that isn’t moving and accept that this is how it is and then pivot or maneuver to get what you want another way. There are so many ways to go up the corporate ladder and it’s rarely a straight path.

When we collaborated on the Leadership Development track of the CIO100 Awards event, you shared four pillars from your leadership playbook. No. 1 is ‘Be Your Own Quarterback.’ What does that mean?

Any book I write will be full of football analogies, as I have learned so much from the game.  Being your own quarterback means knowing yourself well. I think the best leaders in the world have strong self-awareness. They know themselves and what motivates them. They know their value system and when it’s being challenged, and they know how they’re going to feel. How can you lead someone else if you don’t hold yourself accountable and lead yourself? You won’t always make the right decision, but if you are following and trust your gut and know yourself, if it’s an informed decision from deep inside you, how could that be wrong? This takes a lot of internal work, including being vulnerable enough to hear things you may not like hearing.

That naturally leads into No. 2: ‘Know Your Team.’

The working title of the leadership book I’m working on is Beyond X’s and O’s, because the best coaches are those who go beyond the x’s and o’s and really know the players and how to put together a winning team. So this is about knowing what your people enjoy doing, what gets them excited about work every day, and what they are best at. If you give a person the chance to do what they’re best at on a regular basis, they’ll be so much more fulfilled, and they’ll do some things that they’re not great at because you’ve given them enough time to do what they’re best at. If you put someone in a job where they’re constantly struggling, they’re going to show up if they have to, but just for a paycheck. You don’t win big if you’re only showing up for a paycheck.

It’s your responsibility as a leader to get to know them. If you’re in tune with a person and you’ve taken the time to build a relationship, you’ll know when they need tough love or when they just need encouragement because they’ve had a bad day. If you’re the CIO of a large team, it can be impossible for you to know this for everyone, but by being vulnerable yourself and showing your true self at work, you will learn what people care about.

No. 3 is ‘Know the Whole Self.’ What’s the distinction there?

People bring their whole self to work whether you see it or not. In every job I’ve had, I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. Whatever’s going on in all of those selves is happening at work too. It’s just a matter of, can I compartmentalize it enough to get my work done? We all need a leader who will let you bring those other selves to work and give you permission to say, ‘I’m having a hard time right now.’ I’m sure we can all recall a coach, teacher, boss, or mentor you wanted to give your best effort for because they really saw you.

The pandemic shined a light on the whole self in a real way because we started seeing into people’s physical spaces. We might have known they were a mom, but we didn’t know they were a mom of three kids under five. We didn’t know they were caring for an elderly parent until you saw them walk by in the background. I think we have a real moment in time to change the way we approach people at work and take those lessons with us as people return to the office. Let them bring their whole self to work and acknowledge that. It will help you retention-wise and recruitment-wise.

I think the younger generation has lost a lot of institutional trust, but what they can still have is individual trust. If you build individual trust, it’s actually stronger than institutional trust, because if you can get them to trust you as their leader, they will stay with you. And this generation just won’t accept anything less than that. Authentic real leadership is what I hope we take out of COVID.

Tell us about your fourth pillar, ‘Make Sure You Always Have a “Hail Mary” Play.’

In football, Hail Mary is the last chance, last hope, when all is stacked against you and there’s no time on the clock. If you’re a great leader, not only do you have a play ready in those circumstances, but you’ve practiced it. I use that metaphor because Hail Mary plays work. Some of the best sports highlights in the world are Hail Mary plays, and some of the most significant personal triumphs end up being Hail Mary moments. If you’ve prepared for those Hail Mary moments, you’re not scared when they arrive. For me, doing the [NFL] virtual draft was scary because no one had done anything like it before. But my team had been through a lot of Hail Marys. We knew that we had laid the foundation for the Hail Mary play to work. Being a leader is about laying a foundation where a last-second effort can help you win.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve given or received?

I tell people when storms are in their way and they feel themselves wavering to imagine yourself as a tree. Stand tall like a tree with deep roots, but let your branches flow in the wind. You may even lose a branch or two, but if you’re firmly rooted in yourself, you will get through whatever storms may come. I remember my dad telling me that, but more in the context of, don’t forget your roots. You’re going to go and do all these great things, but don’t forget where you came from.

That gets back to how you show up as a leader. It’s always mattered, but never have we had a generation like this one holding us accountable to it. What you say and do matters, and you need to be conscious about bringing your best self every day. And when you can’t, know how to make use of self-care and take some time away until you can bring your best self back on the field.

For more from McKenna’s leadership playbook, including how she galvanized her team to pull of the historic virtual 2020 NFL Draft, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership

Politics gets a bad rap. Or is it rep?

When a CIO proposes a transformational initiative that fails to get traction, they often complain that politics got in the way. They might even add the once-humorous, now tired definition — that politics gets its name from “poly” (many) followed by the name of a popular blood-sucking arachnid: “tick.”

Their CIO colleagues nod supportively, empathizing with the awfulness of it all.

Sadly, these CIOs have the situation exactly backward. As a general rule, it’s the lack of politics — and a leader’s insufficient skill with the art of politics — that destroys good ideas and prevents progress.

You see, politics is what happens whenever an organization needs two (or more) people to make one decision. Which is to say, politics is part of every important organizational decision.

Sure, there are exceptions — situations in which everyone who has to support a decision completely agrees with everyone else who has to support it. It’s an occurrence as likely as every molecule of oxygen, through random movement, ending up in the same corner of a room, asphyxiating the unlucky occupants. The laws of organizational dynamics don’t preclude it, any more than the laws of physics keep oxygen evenly distributed. They just make it highly unlikely that everyone involved in a decision will completely agree with everyone else.

Politics is a set of skills to be honed, not a problem to overcome. IT leaders who find themselves navigating organizational politics can do so successfully, starting with the fundamental facts of the value of relationships versus transactions. Here’s how.

When winning loses more than losing

Imagine your company is about to launch a critical strategic initiative. You want it. So do lots of others with just as much skill and ambition as you have.

You pull a few threads, schmooze a bit, and otherwise do what you have to do, all without violating your sense of business ethics, and in the end you win.

Except that it isn’t “in the end.” It’s the beginning, as you discover when, for the initiative to succeed, you need the support of those who didn’t get the nod.

You need it, and you just don’t seem to be getting it.

Not only that, but the next initiative you want goes to someone else, along with the next few after that, and very likely along with that the promotion you wanted that went to someone else.

That’s when you discover that as often as not, winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because winning is a transaction — an event. It’s relationships that endure or crumble after the transaction has taken place.

Think of each organizational decision you’re involved in as a transaction you can win — the decision goes your way — or lose. The figure below illustrates the situation. Each time you win you chalk up the satisfaction of a victory. But at the same time, each win reduces your peers’ trust in you.

Each time you win and others lose, that is, you increase the organization’s resistance to you. Not to the next thing you want to win at.


IDG / IT Catalysts

Each victory damages the relationships you depend on to be politically effective. That’s because relationships depend on:

Performing favorsHelping to solve problemsAsking for help to solve one of your problems (strangely, asking for help strengthens a relationship more than giving it)ListeningMaintaining confidencesProviding support – especially political supportFinding acceptable compromisesConceding a pointDemonstrating interest in the other party as a person, even when — especially when — there’s nothing they can do for you right now

Review the list and you’ll see there’s nothing in it that looks like you winning and someone else losing.

In fact, some of the relationship drivers on the list deliberately turn wins into partial wins. Others expose vulnerabilities. Asking for help; finding acceptable compromises instead of insisting on doing things the “right” way (defined as “your way”); and, especially, conceding a point instead of insisting on being right about all things all the time exemplify what’s required to maintain and improve the relationships your long-term success depends on.

Win/win vs. just win

Building success on relationships isn’t the same thing as the old, cliched advice to find “win/win” solutions.

It isn’t that win/win solutions are bad things. It’s that a win/win solution presupposes that you and the other party are facing each other on opposite sides of the metaphorical table.

Win/win, that is, is the recommended outcome of most negotiations.

When it comes to forming and maintaining relationships that outlive transactions, the other person or people are, in principle, on the same side you are. It isn’t a negotiation. It’s a collaboration. That means structuring the conversation accordingly: You and everyone else involved ought to be viewing yourselves as leaders of the whole company, not of just the silo you happen to be leading at the moment.

That means win/win just isn’t good enough. You should, overtly and by example, insist on getting to “win.”

Business IT Alignment, IT Leadership