CIO: Throw Your Ego Out of the Window

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rahul Neel Mani

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If you dream to become a successful CEO, you have to embrace the changes required for that position, says Sanjay Sharma, Advisor - IT, IDBI Ltd & Managing Director & CEO, IDBI Intech Ltd. in an interview with Rahul Neel Mani & Yashvendra Singh.

As someone who has been both the CIO and CEO of an organisation, how do you evaluate the role of technology?

There isn’t any doubt that IT has become an integral part of business. It plays a key role as nothing works without technology intervention. Be it operational issues, organisational efficiency or new product development, it can’t be done without technology. It may sound quite bold but you can’t survive without technology today.

As a CEO, when I talk to banks in India and abroad, technology adoption is happening in a decisive way. For example, banks in East Africa are now talking about large-scale technology deployment to expand their reach to customers in an efficient and cost-effective way. The importance and vitality of technology in business is proven but a lot depends on how effectively one advocates about it in a company.

Right, so it means a lot depends on the CIO how s/he portrays IT as a strategic function and not merely as a tactical function.

Yes, that’s true. The CIO is the key instrument to send the right message across the company and its top management. In my experience CIOs talk a lot about technology jargon than appreciating business. It is important to know the domain to put across a business case in business language.

We must remember that when we talk about technology adoption within an organisation be it for a process, product or infrastructure, business only looks at the value that it brings. Thus it is imminent on CIO to translate the technology benefits into business benefits if he/she wants to be heard in the boardroom.

That’s how one can make IT projects successfully sail through in an organisation. To summarise, you may have brought in state-of-the-art technology in your organisation, but if you don’t emphasise on its business benefits than nothing works.

But where is the gap. There have been rare examples of CIOs becoming the CEO. What’s the reason?

There is a vast different between the role of a CIO and that of a CEO. In my personal experience, I found it extremely difficult to earn the trust of the management to become a CEO. Here the key is how much you can detach yourself from technology.

So far a CIO has run successful IT projects but to run the business in which IT is just one part, you require a lot of business acumen. Management will accept you as a serious contender for the top job only when you talk outside the technology boundaries/silo.

As a CIO you have an advantage of knowing technology and only if it is combined with the business acumen and the risk appetite, is when you bring in the striking change. It is important to not only have a vision but also have the ability to deliver on that vision. Unless you do that, the management will keep looking at you as a CIO or IT Head – may be with some edge. That’s where I find the biggest gap.

CIOs often don’t want to come out of their IT shell. Rather than thinking business, they get immersed into IT. Although a lot of CIOs do have those skills but they don’t move away from IT. To conclude, it needs a lot of guts to get to the CEO’s position, it’s a totally different ballgame.

If we take you as a role model, what qualities did you carry forward from the CIO role to the CEO role in your organisation?

I had the advantage of heading an IT company in BFSI domain in the beginning. Once I moved from a CIO’s role to a CEO’s role, I could really appreciate the need of a CIO in the organisation. Being on the other side, you deal with both technology related issues and with business and risk management issues.

As a CIO I knew the gaps which existed in the company. I had the first hand experience of how the organisation works and what the users want. If I had moved from a pure IT company, I would have known the technology parts but wouldn’t have appreciated the business too much. This entire put together actually gave me the ability and confidence to speak the business language. And that helped me a lot.

Every person has the desire to run the company in his/her own way. What changes you thought you will bring once you become the CEO of a company? Have you been successful?

I became a CIO when I was in my mid-thirties. Yes, I did have the ambition of running the business as a CEO when I was young. But there was a lot of discrepancy between my thoughts and the reality at that time.

But during my professional journey I realised that one needs to leave certain things, come out of the shells and do something extraordinarily different to be able to gain the CEO’s position. Most importantly, I had to leave aside my ego as an IT Head/CIO. I was prepared to embrace the changes required for that position.

Second important thing is people management. When you move from a CIO to become a CEO, the drivers of people management change drastically. I was very sure that I will need to bring in different HR practices to ensure that people don’t feel as if they are working for an isolated IT company.

Third important thing was to understand the user’s requirement. When you are in a CIO role, most of your time is consumed in technology related issues. You don’t get time to look into user demands. But as I prepared myself to take on this responsibility, I was sure to leave IT aside and focus on business demands and manage user expectations.

These were the things which were in my mind before I moved in the CEO’s role. After spending nearly five years, when I look back I see a lot of this already being done. But this journey never ends.

What should a CEO do to leverage the full potential of his CIO?

After I moved to the CEO’s role, the bank didn’t appoint a CIO. Instead, the complete IT requirements of the group were moved into the subsidiary. In my case I have to act as the CIO for the group while being the CEO of the subsidiary. That’s a unique model. The idea behind this was to primarily take care of the group’s IT requirements while being a profit centre.

If that is the case, what were those critical pieces that you focused on as a CEO to manage IT?

It is a difficult situation to be in. While being the CEO when you have to perform the role of a CIO, the expectations of the organisation are completely different. On one hand, as a CIO you are expected to come out with product innovations and create competitive edge but on the other hand you are looked at as a service provider and bring best practices in the organisation.

Cross-posted from CTO Forum

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