By Vincent A. Marin, CIO, Sidley Austin LLP
Chief Information Officers (CIOs) have now been in the midst of the digital and business transformation that has been in the making in our world, for decades. CIOs, and by extension, the team of IT professionals we lead have not only been the enablers, but often, the ones who paint the picture of what is possible, and lead the way. These efforts have often resulted in new businesses coming into existence, spurring growth for the organizations we are leaders at, and in some cases, even the very survival of the organizations have been made possible through the transformations we have led, as every organization sorts out the opportunities and the negative impact of inaction in the digital revolution our world is now experiencing.
The role of the CIO has evolved significantly in scope, importance, criticality, and in stature, in recent years. When a technology enabled company comes into existence or significant growth is being experienced with the help of technology, or the existence of a business is extended into the future with technology infusion and services we enable, the importance of the role is beyond question.
Similarly, in this day and age, when phrases such as ‘data is the new oil’ have come into existence, safeguarding the customers’ data, the intellectual property of the organization, business intelligence that is being gleaned from the data for competitive advantage or to serve customers better, are vital to the interests of the business, more than ever. I would argue that there is even a moral obligation when measured in terms of the personal impact to the customers when their data is at risk for misuse, as we read about in these times, quite regularly. The criticality associated with safeguarding of all this important information cannot be underestimated. It is one of our core and primary responsibilities, even as every person in the organization shares this responsibility as well, by their actions or inactions.
The stature, in this context, is always a function of how much an organization values the role and the contributions a CIO makes, which are often based on the results delivered. Commensurate with all this, CIOs are being rewarded in many ways, as deserving as all this is. Many CIOs may also be quick to acknowledge that this is a role that cannot always necessarily be compensated adequately in traditional terms alone. Somewhat akin to that of a teacher, nurse, firefighter, police and the like, at one level, this is noble work irrespective of any reward, since every individual and the entire organization is so dependent on our best work, expect it to be always there, and as a result, may even take it for granted.
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I am often asked, what does it takes for one to become a CIO and to be highly effective and successful? There are a few different ways to answer this question. The shortest is to say that one needs to be well rounded, with all the required skills and an unquenchable thirst for learning. A solid understanding of the business of one’s organization is very much a basic need. Advances in technology are rapid. A significant portion of what we had mastered gets renewed, replaced, or rejected for the new each year. A CIO needs to stay on top of these and sort out the relevant and ready from those that may hold promise for the future. The complexity is compounded, as it is, for most of us who operate in industries and business environments that are experiencing fast paced changes. The changes in legal, regulatory requirements and customer needs, combined with the threat landscape and methods contribute to the complexity as well. These are just the first few.
The CIO’s role and responsibilities, when executed well, can have great impact for an organization on multiple fronts – customer experience, value creation, productivity, growth, and more. On the other hand, when systems are unreliable, are not high performing, or provide a poor user experience, these can break anyone’s day since customers and colleagues depend on the services we offer every minute of the day to get their work done or transactions completed.
Successful CIOs have developed a nice blend of strategy, execution and client focus skills, and wear multiple hats not one after the other, but often simultaneously, throughout each day – to be a visionary, a great problem solver, a teacher, a protector, a counselor and healer, a juggler, a motivating and inspirational leader, a change agent, a finance specialist to efficiently manage all the spend, a marketer, a people leader, a good communicator, a people oriented person, among other technical and business skills.
What we do does not go unnoticed or unrecognized. Almost daily I hear about the good work we do and the value we add, in different flavors and forms. Our global leader recently summed it up in a nice communication, expressing how important my leadership, the outstanding work my colleagues and I do are to the success of our firm. Recognitions like these reinforce for us the value and need to understand the work of the firm continuously, to excel at what we do and to be a positive force to help the Firm to serve our clients well, to grow, and be even more successful.
Equally, if not even a more rewarding part of a CIOs role is the impact we get to have in people’s lives, both customers and colleagues. Any time our colleagues develop, grow and scale greater heights, take on challenges they thought were beyond their capabilities and do well as a result of the opportunities we create, our mentoring, leading by example, the support we provide, it is very satisfying, always encouraging us to extend and expend ourselves to enable the same for more and to elevate our impact to the next levels.
May all of our journeys, both professionally and personally, be fulfilling and rewarding in all possible ways. For all that rests on the CIO’s shoulders, for the value we create, and broad based impact we have in countless ways, this is truly a special calling and this is our time to lead and let our contributions make a positive difference.