Build a better (personal) brand as a CIO

If a colleague were stuck with you at the airport for six hours, would they look forward to spending that time with you? Or would they make an excuse to hide out in the bar until last boarding call? 

You don’t have to decide whether or not you want a brand. You already have one, like it or not. Your brand is your reputation; it’s the extent to which you’re sought out for inclusion in the dialogue because of the kind of energy you bring to the room. Your brand is the response your name elicits when it shows up on someone’s caller ID. The only decision left to make is how you want to manage that brand.

“Strong brands are controllable and best managed by their owners,” said Susan Hodgkinson, principal of The Personal Brand Company, a leadership development expert and coach who spoke at the CIO Peer Forum in Toronto this April. “If you don’t manage your brand, it will get managed by default or someone else will manage it for you, and that’s never serving your self-interest.”

But a great leader doesn’t try to be everything to everybody, she said, since then you start to pander to the latest feedback. Instead, it’s about the choices you’re making and the vision you see for yourself and your organization, and bundling that together in a compelling way.

The strongest brands in the world have a track record of quality, consistency, dependability, predictability and high levels of strategic awareness in target markets. “Any great brand includes a passion about having a higher sense of what we’re here to do. When you show up in the room, are you coming in to do a transaction or is something showing up with you, such as a passion and purpose associated with your work?” said Hodgkinson. “That’s when there’s something powerful and charged in the space you own.”

The number-one factor that creates your brand, however, is trustworthiness. Do you deliver as promised? Do people feel you have their back? Are you honest, but make criticisms in private, rather than a public dress-down? Personal brand management means being a transparent, high-integrity individual who makes decisions in a way that people can understand, even if they don’t agree with them.

“Trust is an assessment that others make about how you will act in the future with something they care about – and trust makes or breaks your brand,” said Hodgkinson. “Trust is built only over a series of exposures or tests, but it can be seriously damaged in just one incident or event.” The marketplace has a short memory for accomplishments, but a long one for failures. Many people get comfortable and start to coast once they nail a space, but the market – and their relevance – keeps moving. If you don’t change it up, you’re charting your course to obsolescence.

“When I started in the industry, technology was more about automation,” said Laura Williams, CIO of the Peel District School Board. Over time, companies like Wal-Mart have taught us that technology is about innovation – not making a certain process more efficient, but creating a whole new process.

The role of CIO has changed from chief efficiency officer to chief innovation officer, she said, and the expectation is the CIO will help transform the business. If they’re having trouble with sourcing or distribution, for example, the CIO is expected to understand the business issue and then layer on technology.

“More and more we’re having this discussion about innovation,” said Williams. “Is it a lightning bolt we hope happens or is it a methodical process where you collect and harvest innovative ideas? And if you’re not a chief innovation officer, how do you make that happen and how can you be more systematic and intentional about innovation?”

Most CIOs were trained in computer science, and that doesn’t always equip them to speak the business language. Working within the education sector, Williams has had to learn a whole new language, and she did this by attending education conferences. “It’s like French immersion – you write down words and try to understand this new language,” she said. “If you find yourself in an accounting firm, you need to go to accounting conferences. Immerse yourself, understand the language and understand the hot topics.”

Williams does an exercise with her team called line of sight: What’s your role and how does it ultimately affect the student and their education? This makes them think less about the technical role and more about the business role. “The whole organization needs to think that way because even though I might be the CIO, the reality is my job is to encourage and harvest great ideas from the entire department, so everybody needs to be thinking that way.”

And if you’re interested in innovation, you’ve got to talk about money. If you’re in a non-profit, the discussion is different, but you still need to understand how money works because innovation by definition is an investment and you’re changing the economics somewhere in your organization, said Williams.

We’re starting to see the emergence of a “chief technology officer” role, which is about staying in the technology field and doing it well. But for CIOs, there’s an expectation that they’re business leaders and that means they have to progressively build critical competencies, such as communication, organizational and change management skills. The demands of the job are such that you won’t survive unless you’re good at those. “That’s hard for people in the IT field,” said Williams. “But we do need to step out and build these other competencies. We need to think about what we want to communicate.”

Re-branding, however, is not something you do in a day. It’s evolutionary, since it involves changing what people think about IT: Is it an expense, or is it an investment? Is it where we find innovation? “It’s figuring out how the magic works,” said Williams. “Can you be intentional about innovation? Is it structured, or is it about chemistry and finding the right people?”

Today’s CIOs are responsible for not only managing the technology environment, but for investing in future technologies, reducing IT costs and managing risk. They’re creating a culture that is responsive to today’s needs, both internally and externally, said Edyta Pacuk, president of SPB Organizational Psychology in Toronto, which works with organizations on assessments, leadership development and engagement culture.

They’re also responsible for creating a pragmatic vision of what can be while using technology as an accelerator or enabler, and making sure that whatever processes they put in place increase efficiencies and the return on investment to make a broader business impact.

“You’re no longer an elevated bunch of geniuses and nerds, but you have a perspective and the world is finally willing to listen,” said Pacuk. This has to do, in part, with the fact that CIOs have evolved their ability to phrase thoughts in such a manner that other people can understand, rather than speaking Klingon.

“What today’s CIO needs to recognize is there are a set of competencies they need to bring to the table so they can relate to people, so their vision is not something kept hidden in their head, but it’s verbalized and they deliver results,” she said. “That creates a visionary profile, your ability to dream what has not been dreamt before and demonstrate foresight, which means your vision has not only panache but also longevity.”

If your vision of the next five years is a representation of what’s happening today, that’s not courageous or compelling, said Pacuk. It needs to carry some degree of risk – the CIO’s job is not only about mitigating risk, but also being able to take risks in a calculated way. It’s the ability to persuade and influence, not only because you are technically credible, but also that you can connect with people’s heads and hearts by being trustworthy, empathetic and able to listen – then deliver results.

There is a lack of tolerance in today’s business world for people who focus only on processes, and this holds true for the CIO. “You need to be bottom-line oriented, you need to deliver results, you need to set standards high and hold yourself and others accountable to deliver to those standards,” said Pacuk. But you cannot do it on your own. Your ability to consult, collaborate, ask for help and provide help to others is critical. It’s consistent behaviour and demonstration of those competencies that create a level of trust and lack of anxiety and defensiveness when the CIO speaks.

The challenge is that CIOs often play conflicting roles. They need to mix vision with pragmatism, create value while managing costs, and put their foot down and be assertive while at the same time be collaborative and inspiring.

Personal branding is tricky, yet it’s a necessary component of success, said Phil Armstrong, SVP of global applications with Sun Life. As a CIO, you’re only as good as your last achievement. If a project goes awry it’s important to re-brand or ride through it with your strong, previously earned brand intact.

Branding can be accomplished through industry involvement by attending functions, delivering speeches and providing volunteer services on boards and panels. “This is a great way to state what you stand for and how you work, sending a strong indication of who you are to the marketplace,” said Armstrong.

More important, however, is establishing your personal brand through the interactions you have on a daily basis. Technology suppliers, for example, will build a profile of you based upon these interactions. Are you erratic, inconsistent or a pushover? Are you firm but fair? Are you a “big picture” person or down in the details?

“The way that you conduct yourself with vendors travels from vendor to vendor,” said Armstrong. “As a CIO we have a symbiotic relationship with technology suppliers and establishing the right tone is vitally important. Your brand has to be you – it has to be authentic, since people can see through an individual with a facade.” Once a strong brand has been established, an errant comment will slide by if it’s inconsistent with personal dealings or a track record of consistent behavior.

That brand has to be carefully thought through, since it can provide valuable information for future employment opportunities. Will you be a good cultural fit? Many potential employers will know before you even reach the interview stage.

How to establish your brand

-Decide how you want to brand (or re-brand) yourself and your team, said Susan Hodgkinson, principal of The Personal Brand Company. Create the change in yourself or your organization (this may be a perception issue). Inform your stakeholders of the change and ask them periodically if they noticed the change. Repeat.

-Establish yourself as a thought leader in your field. Court members of media and become their go-to for expert comment.

-Create direct accessibility to key customers so they can talk through issues with you when needed; this will increase influence, especially with prospects and clients. Review top accounts and create a statement of how IT made or saved the client money.

-Ensure the people on your IT team really show up. Some aren’t able to make the transition to a more commercial role and that may manifest in unproductive ways, injuring the team brand. Build individual development plans now to ensure a strong team for the future.

Building an innovative team

CIOs need to teach the lines of business how to make better choices in investments around technologies, which means they need to be at the table. And that’s a big shift, said Mary Anne Ballantyne, assistant head of technology and innovation with the Bishop Strachan School (BSS). The CEO often sees this shift and understands where the role of CIO needs to go, but their peers aren’t always on side.

“Innovation is important but we need tactile strategies to help shift from ideas to methodologies and structures,” said Ballantyne. “How do you build your innovative team to make that shift along with you? Succession planning is important – it’s not necessarily about building a team that can take your place; it’s about building a team so you can do your job.”

This could include mentoring and professional development, or getting your team to build relationships with the lines of business differently than they have in the past so they have a wider lens in the organization. It may mean bringing the CFO to a CIO conference to help them better understand their evolving role. Ballantyne is involved in an e-mentoring initiative through the CIO Association of Canada in partnership with CATA WIT, launched in March, which she sees as an opportunity to “market” what the role of CIO is all about.

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