Bridging the Leadership Gap Between Tech and Business

Originally published on MIT Sloan Management Review

IT has a brand problem. It has lost trust with its customers — from C-suite stakeholders to individual contributors — who have come to associate IT with bottlenecks, frustration, constraints, and cost overruns. In fact, if IT were a consumer brand, it would have been discontinued years ago.
Perhaps worst of all, the persistent separation of the IT function as a far-off, siloed corner of the company where decisions around technology are made perpetuates outdated ideas about the role of technology in an organization. This limits the reach of technology, and it sets up a false dichotomy between IT and the business.

For so many organizations today, technology is the business. Technology needs to be understood as a critical enabler in every part of the organization from the front line to the back office. It creates new value by crunching data to deliver new insights, it spurs innovation, and it disrupts traditional business models.

Senior executives from both technology and business silos are the only ones who can help their companies shift this mindset. These leaders are the ones who most clearly understand the direction in which their organizations are headed and the important role that technology will play along the way.

For business and technology leaders alike, new actions and behavioral changes can help their organizations make this shift.

How Visionary Leaders Bridge the Gap Between Technology and Business

I’ve been lucky enough to work with several visionary tech leaders — people who have inspired their companies to see beyond the IT label and change the way they work with technology. They are a rare breed: If they sang in bands, I’d have their posters on my wall.

These rock stars tend to have several things in common. First, they don’t hide out on a separate floor or building designated for IT. They walk the halls, and they engage with internal and external customers. They may have workspaces in different locations so that they can also embed themselves with their teams, but they know that the best way to keep stuff from being thrown over the wall is to remove the wall.

These leaders also encourage their teams to follow in their example of cross-collaboration — something that is rarer than it should be. At one retailer, we asked the tech team to connect us with their customers — internal users, in this case. But the customers they brought us turned out to be other members of the IT organization; the engineers had never met or spoken with their actual end customers. A manufacturing company’s chief technology officer (CTO) told us that Steve Jobs said customers don’t know what they want. I’m not sure whether that’s true, but when we talked with the company’s end customers, we learned that a major feature the CTO was pushing for would never have been used — in fact, some customers said it would have irritated them.

Another key behavior involves raising the conversation from lower-level technology concerns like systems and servers to business outcomes. Successful technology leaders take initiative in bridging gaps and finding solutions by asking questions like the following:

  • What business or customer problem are we trying to solve?
  • Is the investment worthwhile?
  • How can we test new ideas?
  • How do we measure results?

But questions won’t go the whole way — managers need to build strong teams and foster a sense of engagement, intellectual curiosity, and cross-functional collaboration within them. One test to see how well leaders are doing that is to watch their behaviors during meetings: Are they are fully engaged? Or are they monitoring their teams or checking emails on their iPads?

As one meeting with the chief information officer of a large tech manufacturer began, I learned that a critical production issue was occurring. I asked whether we should postpone the meeting, but the CIO said it was fine to continue. “I have confidence in my team, and if they need me to solve this issue, then we have bigger problems.” More often than not, these rock star tech leaders and their reports are fully engaged — and not just when technology topics arise or during their spot on the agenda.

Finally, transformational technology leaders take ownership, not blame. The average tenure for a CIO is just over four years, the shortest in the C-suite. One reason for this is that the CIO often becomes a scapegoat for projects that falter or fail. And while CIOs must take responsibility for problems, they should convey that when technology fails, many people typically share responsibility.

One tech leader at a retail company was in the unfortunate position of explaining to the entire leadership team why the company website went down during a peak holiday period. She conveyed that they had a firm understanding of what happened and why, but the “who” was not a single point of failure or a reflection of talent in the organization. She described the steps taken to remediate, defined the impact, and explained what they were doing to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. After she finished, the president reiterated that it was an unfortunate disruption but thanked her for the transparency and ownership. And the company moved on.

The CEO and other business leaders also need to change — and maybe the most important of these changes is to stop thinking of IT as an organization and instead think about technology as a capability. This allows business leaders to play a more active role in the process, rather than just throwing requests over a wall. Business leaders say why a thing needs to get done, and the technology leaders say how.

Good business leaders also look for ways to engage more deeply with technology. We’ve seen a number of cases in which an executive who may have been a detractor of IT took a greater interest and emerged with a better understanding of technology’s capabilities and potential. Most have come to understand that in today’s fast-moving environment, there’s no room for a technophobic business leader.

Business executives must also elevate tech leadership in the company, because without that access, they hinder their own ability to use technology to gain strategic advantage. One wholesale retailer that was working hard to improve its omnichannel customer experience really needed to invest in modernizing their website to catch up with competitors who were edging them out with new technology. But somehow, conversations about required tech investments always seemed to come back around to reducing spending to an arbitrary benchmark — a natural hazard of having a technology leader report to the finance chief.

None of these changes will happen easily within companies in which executives, technology and business alike, are steeped in old habits that keep the potential of technology locked away in an IT tower. Only by breaking these old habits and adopting new behaviors can they break free from the legacy of IT and help technology take its rightful place as an enabler of the business.

By Will Poindexter
Will Poindexter Partner