Taking a brief from a board on a CIO/CTO/CDO role is rather like picking from a box of chocolates where you’ve lost the little card which tells you what the flavours are; you never know what you’ll get until you taste it. There are certainly some specific flavours which come through depending on the sector and size of the organisation, but as a head hunter, I can tell you that boards are full of surprises.

Furthermore when we speak to CIOs who are looking for a new role, they often reflect on organisations where they were not happy. Even so, it’s clear that they did little due diligence before signing on the dotted line. A common theme is, “They said they wanted change and I believed them”. However, if you speak to the organisations who have ejected that technology leader, they will confirm that they did, and still do, want change. So where did it all go wrong?

Whilst the briefings are always quite different, they tend to fall into three categories:

1. Just technology transformation

The first are organisations which have technology and just want it to be better. Some are very open about the level of chaos the new leader will find and others are less candid. Some will sell you a strawberry cream and you end up with a mouldy coffee cream, and sometimes, they lie. In any case these are essentially technology-centric roles, pure and simple – nothing wrong with that. You will need strong technical skills and the ability to define a good and solid commercial business case.

2. Part technology, part business transformation

The second are organisations which have some business issues which they need help with. For example, “Our supply chain is inefficient, we are trying to be global but all our technology capability is in Clacton on Sea” or “we want to be more customer-centric but don’t really know how to go about it”. This is a hybrid business/technology role where you will need functional, commercial, influencing and technical skills in equal measure. Today, these are the most common.

3. Full business transformation

The third, and by far the rarest (the violet cream), are the organisations which are genuinely hungry for transformation; they are ready to jump in and disrupt themselves to take the fight to the competition – whoever that is or might be at some point. They are ready to reinvent themselves and look to their technology leader to help them define the very essence of what they will become. This is far more of a business role than a technology role and the key skills are strategic thinking, stakeholder management, innovation and transformation.

Whilst it’s true that it’s easier for an organisation to transform if it’s small and agile, GE shows us that elephants can also learn to dance: it’s about mindset. That’s why each briefing is a new adventure for us and not much surprises us anymore.

If there is one big surprise however,  it’s that many technology leaders have given little thought as to where they might thrive, which explains why so many of them last months rather than years. Candidates hear an organisation say they want change and dig no deeper. They don’t ask how much change is needed, when it will start, where the money to fund it will come from, what happens when there’s a bump in the road (inevitable), or if the guy in supply chain is change-resistant (likely) or the sponsor leaves half-way through (must be considered).

Poor due diligence often results in a complete mismatch of expectations and as head hunters we often hear the same story from two sides, each blaming the other as to why it didn’t work. Happy technology leaders usually describe a good culture fit and I believe that the pace of change an organisation wants and will tolerate contributes heavily to that perception of culture.

Key questions to ask

Ask the head hunter the awkward questions about appetite for change and ask them again as well as every person you meet along the way in the interview process. Are they all aligned? Does your gut instinct tell you they are being honest (or even that they know the answers themselves)?

The next critical question is therefore all about you. In your desire to appear as a commercial, transformational board member, the outstanding technology super-brains often feel it’s not acceptable to take a role to improve technology and deliver a strategy set out by other business leaders. The truth is, there is nothing wrong with being a technology geek – we need them, and they are becoming more, not less in demand. The key to success is in knowing yourself, being honest and then finding the organisation in which you will thrive. Thereafter it’s about having the good judgement and sense to walk away from an interview for a role when you know it’s not really you.

Off to another briefing now: who knows – orange delight or toffee crisp?

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