Surprising Insights About Strategic IT Leadership

By Marc J. Schiller
Strategic leaders

Surprising Insights About Strategic IT Leadership

“Why do you want to become a more strategic IT leader?”

“What is your biggest barrier to becoming more strategic?”

“How is strategy currently handled in your IT organization?”

For the last few weeks, we asked our community of IT leaders those three questions.


Because IT leaders are constantly being told they must “become more strategic.” Often, this advice is given without much elaboration. It’s given as if “becoming more strategic” was a simple thing to do. And this guidance is given as if the benefits were so obvious.

After hearing this advice repeated again and again, we realized there was one set of voices missing from the conversation about strategic IT leadership … the voice of the IT leaders themselves.

We wanted to give IT leaders a chance to explain what really motivated them to want to become more strategic—beyond the fact it’s something they’re being told they must do. And we wanted to better understand the real challenges they faced when they tried to “step up” and contribute a different type of value to the business.

To uncover this, we put together a small survey, and shared it with our community of IT leaders. What we got back: these three surprising insights about strategic IT leadership.

Insight 1: IT Strategy Is Not About the Tech. It’s About the People.

When you hear the big IT publications talk about strategy, it’s always focused on the technology. They always feature headlines like these:

"Looking for an A.I. Strategy?"
"How to Develop an Internet of Things Strategy"
"How to Get Creative With Your Digital Transformation Strategy"

But none of our respondents wanted to become more strategic just to play with all the big, cool technologies coming out. Instead, these IT leaders wanted to use strategy to get closer to their people.

Half of them wanted to use strategy to engage and excite their teams. Half wanted acceptance from their business’ senior leaders. Some of them wanted to use strategy to “stay in tune with colleagues on the business side.” Others wanted to use strategy to get invited to the inner circles of senior business leadership.

But in every single response, IT leaders wanted to “step up” and become a more strategic leader so they could improve their relationships within their organization. For IT leaders, “becoming more strategic” is a people issue—not a tech issue.

And yet, looking deeper into the data, we came to see, for most IT leaders…

Insight 2: Your Stakeholders Are Not the Problem (Yet).

Since IT leaders care about strategy primarily for people-driven reasons, you’d expect that IT leaders’ biggest barrier to becoming more strategic would be stakeholder relationship problems.

We expected that.

We thought that when we asked IT leaders, “What is your biggest challenge to becoming a more strategic IT leader?” most would respond, “My business stakeholders won’t listen to me.” But the opposite happened.

Only 12.5 percent of our respondents said they can’t become a more strategic IT leader because their business stakeholders won’t listen to them. Instead, 87 percent said they can’t become more strategic because they spend all their time completing one-off projects and putting out fires, or they lack a central compelling vision and strategy to bring to their stakeholders or their teams.




Surprising Insights About Strategic IT Leadership

Most IT leaders haven’t even reached the point at which their stakeholders can ignore their strategic perspective.

Instead, they are still struggling with the first barrier to strategic IT leadership: Most IT leaders remain caught in a purely functional view of how they can contribute to their business. They feel challenged to see what they can do beyond solving the crisis of the day. They lack a greater vision of the value their technological expertise can offer their business.


Insight 3: Developing a Strategic Voice Remains the Biggest Challenge for Most IT Leaders.

When we dug deeper into our community of IT leaders’ feelings about why they couldn’t act more strategically, one common statement emerged. They repeated this one statement in many different ways, including the following:

“I lack a unique vision of how IT can add value to my company.”

“I’m not close enough to the business to truly understand their concerns.”

“IT leaders are never trained to develop a compelling strategic vision.”

“I don’t know how to transform my knowledge into tangible strategic solutions.”

Throughout our survey, when we asked these IT leaders what was holding them back from becoming more strategic, at heart they kept saying just one thing: “I want to add strategic value to my business, but I don’t know how.”

It takes guts to admit that. And it can be painful to dig into why this might be. But it’s also necessary.

IT leaders are intelligent, thoughtful people with a deep understanding of technology.

And as technology becomes the key value driver for each function, IT leaders can deliver strategic value like never before. In fact, right now, IT leaders are the only people who can create a truly compelling, cross-functional vision and strategy for their business’ technology-driven future.

So why are IT leaders struggling to develop and deliver this strategic voice? There seems to be something missing.

This "something" prevents many IT leaders from, as one respondent put it, “connecting the dots” between IT’s technological expertise and their business’ burning needs.

We’ve spent decades helping IT leaders construct visions and strategies that energize their people, and get them a seat at the table. We have some thoughts about what this missing "something" might be.

But for today, we want to hear from you. What do you think this missing "something" is? Why do IT leaders struggle to “connect the dots” to produce a compelling strategic vision for themselves, their people and their business?

Marc J. Schiller, the founder and managing partner of Rain Partners, is a leading voice on IT leadership and management. His book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, discusses significant management challenges facing IT leaders today—and how to address them. Schiller's focus on stakeholder engagement, management frameworks and creative communications has helped dozens of IT leaders gain a seat at the management table. A former partner at PwC and global practice leader for IBM, Schiller has worked with, and learned from, CIOs on three continents.

This article was originally published on 10-18-2017