The Letter Every CIO Wants To Write To Their CEO But Doesn't

Dear CEO,

I know that recent years have been somewhat disruptive with technology upending once secure business models. We certainly live in both interesting and somewhat scary times. I guess the best way to describe the era we’re living in as “business unusual”. As a result, markets are unpredictable and business leaders, such as yourself, are wrestling with the uncertainty that lies ahead.

With all this going on, I must commend you for the way in which you have given everything to help drive this company forward. I can only imagine that you sometimes feel like the responsibility of the world rests on your shoulders. Balancing the expectations of the board and shareholders with the needs of our customers and our staff can be a mine field. It’s really great when they all align, but let’s be honest, they more often don’t than do.

So, I write this letter with the sincerest respect to the challenges you face and the priorities across the business.

As stated, the world around us certainly is changing. Technology advancements have made once docile competitors more bold as the barriers to entry are getting lower. Your awareness and understanding of this new reality gives me confidence that you’ll steer us toward our goals as a collective. I know that you fully understand that our business must transform digitally if we are to maintain our competitive edge.

This is evident when you speak about the opportunities ahead of us and how our willingness to transform can only result in a more secure future for the company. I get excited about what that can mean for our customers and our staff, and how I can help us get there. Yet, I become concerned when it’s been a tough month and you start communicating the same digital message, but more in terms of “If we don’t do it, we’ll all be out of a job in a years time”. I do understand the pressures you are under and why the vision is related to in these terms sometimes.

I know you see my position as a critical part to making the necessary transformation happen. Yet I am painfully aware that I often struggle to communicate how technology can enable the business to meet our identified objectives – and your vision for the future. I want you to know that I am working on becoming a better communicator, and am more than prepared to step up to the plate.

But I need your help.

To make this shift, I need you to think about my role and lines of accountability differently.

I know that my team is made up of developers, tech support staff and business analysts. I also know that our heated debates on iOS vs Android (and our obsession with the Star Wars franchise, which is totally awesome by the way…) might make you think of us as more geek than business savy. However, for digital transformation to take place within the four walls of this company, we need you to think of us as more than just the IT crowd.

Historically, our IT department has helped the business by implementing and maintaining technology to help improve efficiencies. Everything we have done has been about removing risk to allow the management of the business to run more effectively. We have worn that badge with pride and take great pleasure in being the team that supports the foundation of the business.

But now you are asking us to lead the business, to guide it forward and develop strategies and solutions that will not only help operationally, but at a customer-facing level also. Don’t get me wrong, we are hugely excited about this. The opportunity to create new products and build new business models is awesome – and we’re ready to show you what we’ve got.

The problem is we can’t do it if we are still treated like an IT department. New products, new business models, new engagement tools are all about innovation, not risk. And innovation requires a different set of rules if you want to succeed.

Innovation does not succeed first time, some things we do won’t work and some will. But if we can foster a culture that , learns and responds and always looks to find the competitive edge we’ll succeed.

So what does all of this mean to you? What is it that I am asking you to do? Here goes…

1) I can no longer report into the CFO

While I have the utmost appreciation for the role our CFO plays, it’s time for your designated technology leader to do what you pay him to do: lead. I need you to trust me to do my job and lead the business with respect to Digital Transformation.

How effectively we can do this depends on our own willingness to change. Traditional reporting and approval processes for IT departments won’t help us address the new challenges that come at us unabated. “Prove how much this will save us?” or “prove how much this will generate in revenue?” are not what a team responsible for innovation should be held accountable to.

So with this said, I’m requesting that I report to you directly in order to help you understand how your technology department can help the company navigate these uncertain times. In the medium to long term it is this that will determine the success, or failure, of our company. With all due respect to our trusted CFO, finance should not drive decision-making when it comes our technological investments, the person setting the vision should. I need to work and report directly to you to make this a reality.

2) Treat us like you treat Marketing

I can not be held accountable to the same rules of the past. Marketing works to different rules than an IT department. They still have KPI’s and targets but they are given more leeway for success or failure. The expectation is that not everything will always work and some things are less quantifiable. They learn from the reaction in the market to what they do and adjust and improve. That is how innovation through technology also needs to be treated.

3) Change & Innovation require a budget

You tell me that Digital Transformation is a priority, but then tell me there is no money for it. That sort of doesn’t make any sense? I then worry that the “digital transformation” is more rhetoric than reality. I know I’m not a numbers guy but if a marketing campaign or a new system roll out is a priority for the business then the money is moved or found accordingly. If the problem is finding money for innovation, then let’s deal with that problem and not just say there isn’t a budget.

I know I’ve been frank in this letter, but it’s because I truely love the business I work for and the people I work with. So I write this letter not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of the company. I’m driven by your vision and the opportunity it will provide us with to write a new exciting chapter in the company’s history. But if you want to talk about it from a burning platform perspective, both you and I will not be in our job in a years time if we don’t change. I’m pretty sure the board already has that on their radar.

Help me to help you,
Your loyal CIO

Mike Perk is the Co-founder of Digital Transformation agency WWC, based in Cape Town and Johannesburg. With offices in South Africa and teams throughout Africa, WWC is the one of the most iconic Africa-built agencies working on the continent. 

*This letter was originally published on www.wwc.co.za and can be found and shared here.