A popular author and speaker about the future of IT, Charles Araujo talks about what it means to be a digital leader, the IT organization of tomorrow, and how to enable transformation in an organization.
CIO Insight: What do digital leaders do that non-digital leaders don't do?
More than anything, I think that the difference between say a traditional leader and a digital leader is a mindset. A digital leader doesn't need to have anyone reporting to them to get big things done. They aren't waiting around for someone to give them orders. They are actively exploring how technology can be used to change anything and everything—even it was just changed yesterday—if it will create a competitive value for the organization. They have no romantic notions of how "things have always been done." They are simply unrelenting in their quest to find opportunities and then build ad-hoc teams to seize on them as quickly as possible.
CIO Insight: How can CIOs and IT leaders best enable transformation in their organization? What are the things that should be top of mind for them?
Well, the first thing is that they have to really understand what that means. I think that transformation has become such a buzz word that it's at risk of not meaning anything. Doing a technology refresh is not a transformation. Transformation is about fundamentally moving your organization rapidly into this future. It means challenging all of your current operating models and paradigms and examining everything you do through this lens of differentiating value.
But assuming that an IT leader is present and ready to move forward, the next thing that he or she has to realize is just what this means to their teams. It means that everything is going to change—and that has the potential to scare the dickens out of folks. So they need to treat it with the gravity that it deserves and rather than treat it as a "project" to treat it as a unifying call to action. It should be the equivalent of John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon within the next decade. IT leaders need to inspiring their teams to rise to the challenge and to step boldly into the future. There's going to be a lot of heavy lifting to do and a lot of fear to overcome. It will only happen with passion and inspiration. So that's the beginning.
Next, they need to realize that their teams are almost certainly ill-equipped for this journey. They are going to need to pay some serious attention to the leadership, innovation, collaboration and business skills of their teams—the skills that I describe in The Quantum Age of IT. These skills become the building blocks of a transformation. Also, IT leaders need to be focused on developing leaders at every level of the organization.
Finally, they need to take a structured and programmatic approach to a transformation. They will need to invest in the process of transformation. You cannot just talk about transformation and will it into existence. Any type of significant organizational change only happens over long periods of time, especially in large organizations. So IT leaders need to put a structure in place to have a clear vision of what they intent to transform into and then create a mechanism to keep the entire organization marching in that direction. They need to build bridges, break down the silos, create deep impassioned engagement and continually refocus as their transformational effort evolves.
It's a lot of work, but it's the only path to continued relevance.
CIO Insight: What were some of the professional hurdles early in your career? How did you overcome them?
I guess you could say that I began my IT career in high school. I wanted a car, but I didn't want to work at a fast-food restaurant, so I wrote an order management system in COBOL and sold it to a local manufacturing firm. I've always had a love and fascination for technology. And for the longest time, I thought that was what it was all about. I remember getting so frustrated when talking to someone and they just couldn't see how cool some technology was—it was like they were stuck in the past.
This became a major problem for me. At some point, though, something changed. Maybe it was having kids at a young age that made me see things differently—you grow up quick that way—but whatever it was, I suddenly started to see that the real role of technology was to serve humanity. That might sound a little new age, but it wasn't anything that far out there. I just started caring a lot more about people than the technology, both in terms of my "customers" who were using the technology and in how I managed my teams. I found that when I focused on those two sets of people, ironically enough, the technology worked better. I wish I could say that there was this one sentient moment, but it happened gradually. Then one day I woke up and found that I couldn't really call myself a technologist anymore. I still loved technology and I was still technical, but technology was no longer my focus. The problem was that kind of left me without a home! So I had to begin to forge my own path.
CIO Insight: What are some leadership lessons you've learned in your IT career?
The single greatest leadership lesson of my career is that leadership is about people. It's not about getting something done or even getting somewhere. I can get something done or go somewhere by myself. Leadership is about getting a group of people to go somewhere with you—someplace that neither you nor they can reach on their own. It's about bringing together a group of people around a shared vision of some brighter future and helping each of them fulfill their role in getting the team to this place. I think that's what makes great leadership so difficult—it requires that you put your focus on everyone and everything else other than yourself. Leadership is rarely this hard-charging thing you see in the movies, where the leader charges forward without regard for anyone or anything. Much more often, it's about having this inspiring vision of the future and then being willing to give it away, allowing it to become bigger than you. It's about allowing others to make it their own and then your job becomes to help them both achieve it for themselves and to help them give it away themselves.
It is really about humility and seeing yourself as a servant to the vision and to the people pursuing it. And that's hard for a lot of people to understand and accept.