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Transformation will fail if the CIO lets ego get in the way

When I joined Hermes (now Evri) nearly six years ago as chief information officer (CIO), I was brought in with a clear brief: to lead the business on an IT transformation that would modernise systems and enable infrastructure to keep pace with demand. The business back then ran very much on legacy systems and had big physical data centres that sometimes fell over during peak periods.

Since then, we’ve migrated to the cloud and have consumption-based infrastructure that is aligned with our business model. The UK business now handles around 700 million deliveries a year and at peak times our systems process up to 5,000 transactions a second.

Our business very much fits the picture in the Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report where half of organisations are planning major transformation over the next three years. We’re on a journey and one that’s continuing: the job of IT is never done.

With so many stakeholders in the business looking to IT to support their needs, I’ve had to ask myself the question that every CIO comes to eventually: what relationships and dynamics do I need to create to make this transformation work?

Show your ambition to the board

For me, it’s crucial to establish a strong relationship with the board from the outset. In fact, I believe that the CIO should be on the board themselves – I am, and I don’t think I’d take up a CIO position that wasn’t. Obviously though, this is going to vary from business to business.

When I started at Evri, my first task was to persuade the board that we needed to significantly increase investment in IT. In truth, this wasn’t difficult because it was clear to everyone that our systems were failing the business. Then, it becomes about giving a clear vision of where you’re trying to get to, and breaking that down into clear phases of the journey. Once you’ve got that buy-in, it’s about delivering quick and regular wins in the first instance to build momentum and confidence.

You need to be open and honest while also showing ambition. You need a certain toughness too – I had to show a bit of belligerence and persistence when we were migrating our data from servers in Germany to the cloud. Be somewhat aggressive in your goals. If you only deliver 80- 90% of them in a year, that will still be significant. I have found that the board – and clients – have welcomed the ambitious plans I’ve put forward and have celebrated their delivery.

Collaboration with the business – not an ego game

CIOs and tech leaders have to work with many different parties – other functions in the business, clients and customers, suppliers. This is one of the hardest areas to get right: how much should the CIO be looking to control everything that happens, and how much is it OK to let the business run with things? For me, it’s about overcoming ego to find the right solutions for the organisation.

This is an area where in fact I may not be typical because my CIO role at Evri has expanded greatly in the last few years to the point where I now lead not only IT but marketing, products and customer experience. I led the multi-million-pound rebrand from Hermes to Evri that has just launched. I have chief technology, marketing and product officers and head of customer experience who all report into me. In other businesses it will be more siloed. Nevertheless, I think I have learned a number of key lessons that will apply to other CIOs too.

Firstly, it’s absolutely necessary to simply be in regular contact with your fellow directors. I talk to other directors in the business every day. Whether it’s about business as usual issues or strategic matters, keeping communication channels open, understanding the wider picture, and keeping up rapport is vital. Whether I’m having a physical day in the office or a virtual day working from home, I make sure it’s the same in that respect.

The second key point applies particularly if the business you work for is experiencing growth. It’s great when this happens but the workload and complexity inevitably increases too. So you have to let go of your own ego and let others take some of your remit if that’s going to be in the best interests of the business. Don’t try to hold onto everything yourself. Don’t be too ‘political’ and calculated. Be an honest dealer and keep in line with the values of your business. Bring good people in and work collaboratively with them. Don’t get stuck in your ways either: if there are opportunities to do things differently and better, embrace them.

Dealing with shadow IT

Another big area to deal with is shadow IT. It’s something that confronts every CIO these days. The Nash Squared report found that around a fifth of IT spend now sits outside the tech function. It used to be an issue that really worried me. But I began to realise that it’s a similar principle to letting go of parts of your remit: you can’t control everything and it’s not the CIO’s role to control all things IT. The question to ask yourself is: am I going to add value by owning this? Or should I let the business get on with it, building in regular reviews and feedback loops? It’s the latter that works better in my experience. The non-negotiable element, however, is around risk and cyber security. All shadow IT must comply and be aligned with the organisation’s broader risk and security approach.

For me, therefore, one of the keys to successful transformation – outside all the technical considerations and choices of course – is to get the balance right between control and collaboration. As CIO, you have to be in control at the strategic big picture level. But you’ll get the best results by collaborating with the business, working alongside fellow directors and trusting others to deliver where you believe they’re best placed to do so. Make sure you build in governance processes so that you can regularly review what’s going on and don’t become disconnected, but make sure at the same time that it doesn’t become too bureaucratic and make it too hard to effect change.

Biggest challenge, biggest opportunity

I’m going to start with the opportunity. To me, tech is an amazing sector to be in. There isn’t a better place to be. The scope of the change you can bring about, the value you can bring to the organisation and its clients – it’s truly exciting and incredibly rewarding.

The challenge, however, arises out of this opportunity. Because once you start building something, people naturally begin to want more. As you deliver all the benefits of an IT transformation, it unleashes a tidal wave of demand. So the challenge for the tech sector is simply to keep up with expectation and keep delivering against it. It’s what we have to do – and what we’ll keep on committing ourselves to achieving!

This article was originally published in The State of Digital 2022 and is part of the Digital Leadership Report series. Other articles in the publication discuss cyber security, diversity, talent attraction, and ESG in IT.

Download The State of Digital publication here.

Crimson is an IT consultancy, an IT solutions provider, an IT recruitment agency, and a Microsoft Gold Partner with offices in Birmingham and the City of London.