Gartner: 7 characteristics CIOs need to take digital leadership to the next level

Gartner: 7 characteristics CIOs need to take digital leadership to the next level


Specific actions are required for self-development and to play a broader role in accelerating digital business growth, Gartner analyst says at IT Symposium/Xpo.


Image: Gartner

As an organization’s top IT leader, CIOs may think they possess the skills needed to help their organizations accelerate and stay competitive, but there are seven traits they need if they want to stand out in a rapidly changing world, according to Apoorva Chhabra, an associate principal analyst at Gartner.

“What got you here won’t take you far,” Chhabra said during a session at Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo Tuesday. “It involves tasks that go well beyond checking a box.”

Being a digital leader today requires evolving your mindset; the way you take your leadership forward with some unique characteristics and traits, she said. The one critical element of running a digital business is to have the characteristics of effective leadership that reach beyond the norm and create greater value, she said.

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It has never been a more urgent time to be an effective digital leader, Chhabra said.

During her presentation, Chhabra outlined the 7 characteristics of a digital leader:

1. They are neophiliacs

A neophiliac is a person who has a love of novelty and everything new. They have a strong affinity to know what is happening in the world and are attracted to knowledge. Effective digital leaders have a deep desire to create new experiences for themselves.

One simple task Chhabra suggested CIOs can do is to try something new every other week—or even every day. It doesn’t have to involve a lot of effort but it has to be habitual. For example, think about a different way to start a virtual meeting.

“It’s all about cultivating an attitude that welcomes diverse ideas from diverse people,” she said, as well as exposing yourself to a variety of stimuli.

She also advised maintaining a balance and making sure you are “not making any rash decisions you’ll regret.”

2. They invent but also copy

Don’t dabble in innovation or do a little bit of it all over the place, she said. It’s better to improvise based on tested methods. Invent sometimes, but also copy and improvise, she stressed.

SEE: Gartner analyst: 12 technologies to accelerate growth, engineer trust and sculpt change in 2022 (TechRepublic)

“As a digital leader, you should have an appreciation of where exactly your organization needs to stand different and where you need to copy and improvise.” For example, Chhabra cited Amazon Kindle and said that while former CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t invent the e-reader he understood that consumers wanted a unique way of publishing and reading books. So he implemented technologies and created a unique design and concept.

3. They eschew industry boundaries

Leaders like to know about market trends and what their competitors are doing. Chhabra advised CIOs not to make plans based on what they know about their industry. “Instead, force yourself to think and question: Is that enough?”

Instead of looking at your direct competitors, look at what startups and niche players are thinking. Think beyond the traditional set of industry boundaries, she said, and more about “what do you think the digital dragon is thinking?”  

4. They appreciate that innovation is more than just creativity

Innovation and creativity are not interchangeable, Chhabra said. “As an effective digital leader you also have to realize innovation is definitely more than just creativity,” but creativity is a major critical behavior necessary in the innovation process.

The typical innovation process starts with idea generation and then evaluating, developing and implementing an idea, and finally, promoting it to the market. “Conventional leaders make the mistake of thinking they should focus just on creativity for the entire innovation process,” she said. “As a digital leader, it’s important for you to focus beyond creativity.”

There are four other skills/behaviors that are necessary, according to Chhabra. In the evaluation phase, you need people who can challenge which ideas will go forward and will create value for stakeholders.

Secondly, you need people who collaborate and bring together other people and resources. Third, you need people who construct the design process so the idea is implemented. Finally, to commercialize that, there need to be people who can sell the idea to customers.

“Remember one simple thing: Stop making ideation look glamorous and implementation look mundane,” Chhabra said. “You don’t need one idea to overshadow others. Maintain a balance and ensure all five behaviors are presented equally.”

5. They build teams with high AQ (adversity quotient)

Even with all the right people in the right place in the organization, CIOs must ask if that is enough to pivot during uncertain times. Some people are like an egg and will crack under adverse situations. Some are like an apple—they get bruised and gradually become toxic. There are others who are like a tennis ball and bounce back and still maintain their shape and are resilient, she said.

“Effective digital leaders ensure they are like a tennis ball and have a high AQ,” which refers to the understanding of human resilience to deal with undesirable circumstances, Chaabra said.

Leaders should practice “positive visualization” while letting team members know what outcomes they are expected to achieve. While a positive mentality has an inspiring effect on teams, at the same time, leaders should also practice negative visualization for resilience.

This means looking at outcomes as well as obstacles since not everything is going to happen as planned. “You have to ensure your team understands IT supports it and behaves and handles those changes accordingly,” Chhabra said. “It’s important not to overlook negative visualization and put it forth as a resilient activity for your team.”

6. They never consider digital to be the outcome 

Many leaders want to become a digital company and transform their business model. Chhabra recommended that if this applies to them, they should pause and ask themselves whether being digital is the company’s ultimate goal? She suggested that it is not.

“And effective digital leaders understand this. They know digital is just a means, not an end.” Making everything digital doesn’t really contribute to a greater value, she said. In fact, sometimes it decreases the value of the solution. She cited online grocery shopping as an example.

“It is less friendly, more time-consuming and the experience of being in a store is not what you feel on an online grocery site, according to Chhabra. “So use digital to enhance your value proposition—how you achieve your business outcomes and bring customers what they want in an effective way.”

Value proposition elements include novelty, differentiation, price and work facilitation, she said. The applied technologies to enable this are analytics, automation, big data and simulation.

In the end, companies should focus on the things that matter: what their value proposition is, an improved customer experience and the business outcome. 

“Don’t treat digital as your only outcome,” she stressed.

7. They geek out on technology

Even though technology shouldn’t be the only solution, it is an important ingredient, Chhabra said. It’s OK to be considered a geek and not shy away from it, she said. “Effective digital leaders don’t. They geek out on technology and encourage their teams and people to do that.”

Being a geek brings you closer to knowing what your business is built on and understanding what the business is about. A tech geek may be someone who on a Saturday morning, sips tea and reads about the latest gadgets and technologies. If that’s you, “there is a reason to celebrate because you’re a geek.”

Chhabra’s final advice was to quote W. Clement Stone, founder of The Combined Insurance Company of America, who said, “Big doors swing on small hinges.” She recommended starting small and inhabiting two or three of these characteristics. That way, you won’t get overwhelmed and can capture them and practice them so they become everyday habits.  

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