In 2016, author Tina Nunno wrote in her book The Wolf in CIO's Clothing that CIOs needed to become predators and not end up being prey - they had to be a wolf, not a lamb. Eight years later, having navigated their companies through a pandemic, has the book stood the test of time? And in a post-pandemic economy, do CIOs really need to be a wolf? We met the author in Barcelona at the Gartner Symposium to pose those questions.
First, let's take ourselves back to 2016, a year that, with hindsight, we can now see was the beginning of the macro-economic disruption that has characterized the 2020s. There was an outbreak of the Zika virus, terrorists bombed Brussels Airport, the Panama Papers revealed that world leaders in the UK, Europe and the US profited from tax avoidance, the UK referendum on EU membership took place, and who can forget the election of Donald Trump as US President. Whilst cloud computing and DevOps were changing the shape of enterprise technology.
These global issues and new technology methods were shaping the role of enterprise technology leadership. Many organizations were still thankful that technology had created significant savings that kept the business afloat following the recent credit crisis. So, CIOs had an opportunity to become both business and technology leaders, but many lacked the killer instinct needed, which led to Nunno's September 2016 book.
The Wolf in CIO's Clothing takes the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, the 14th-century Florentine philosopher, and tailors it to the challenges of business technology leadership. Machiavelli is credited for writing that leaders must learn the behaviours of nature's beasts to master force and cunning. As her book says:
The wolf - a social animal with strong predatory instincts - the ideal example of how a leader can adapt and thrive.
Business books often rely on sport for analogy, so why did Nunno land on Machiavelli's vulpine influence?
People need a shortcut about how they think about themselves, and they often identify with animals. I landed on the wolf because of the predator and prey analogy, and as a leader, you don't want to be prey.
Post pandemic pack
Surely, the pandemic and the vital role CIOs and their technology teams played in those early months of the 2020s have repositioned the role, and CIOs no longer need to channel their inner wolf. She says:
CIOs had strong visibility and exposure, which improved the relationship and trust. Also, CEOs learned that the CIO genuinely understood their business and industry, and they can make a great contribution to the business.
And she's pleased with how CIOs responded to the opportunity:
CIOs took that visibility and turned that trust into a strategic partnership and therefore power. CEOs now look to their CIOs to lead on trust as organizations adopt technologies such as Generative AI. The reason for this is that technology is playing a role in competitive advantage.
The events of 2016 and the 2020s have led to disruption being a way of life, whether it be from technology, disease, conflict, supply chain failures or tax-avoiding politicians. This state of affairs, in fact, increases the need for leaders to be a wolf and not a lamb, the author argues, and so her book has stood the test of time, she says.
In times of disruption, it can bring out the best in people and the less than best. Using the techniques in the book, we want to help leaders be more reasonable, strategic and collaborative.
Although there is the lone wolf saying and a fictional depiction of the wolf as a threatening creature, it cannot be overlooked that the wolf is one of the most successful animals because it lives in packs. Packs, just like organizations, require leadership and collaboration. The ever-increasing importance of technology, therefore, also requires leadership and collaboration.
So, what characteristics do boardroom and technology leadership wolves exhibit? The book states:
As CIOs often find themselves at the centre of business conflict, they must not only familiarize themselves with Machiavellian tactics as a defensive weapon but also learn to use them as an offensive weapon in extreme situations so that they can increase IT's contribution to their enterprises.
Wolves are on the offensive. So when a deadline is set, a wolf will challenge it and ask for the deadline to be justified and proven.
The analogy works for CIOs. Interim Digital Director at Kettering General Hospital Joanna Smith says:
Nunno truly was an inspiration to me in my early CIO years. I recall I related to her wolf analogy - social, not quite so sure about predatory though, but definitely not prey!!
Preying for change
Nunno says the book and her subsequent work as a specialist in executive leadership and organizational politics with Gartner are responses to the toxic cultures that exist in many firms. CIOs are often asked to cope with budget cuts yet deliver more, and the organization will not tolerate failures. She says:
It is a manipulative technique, but if they defend themselves, they are accused of being aggressive. I genuinely believe that we have to be able to defend ourselves.
Being aggressive sounds counter-intuitive, especially as the board needs to have collective responsibility, but Nunno explains it's about being on a par with fellow leaders and making that clear as a way to protect your team and its work:
Me and my people are valuable; therefore, if you want access to them, you will behave and engage with them in the right way. Whatever level people are, they deserve to be treated with due respect, and decisions have to be made to a standard of data and thought.
Business technology leaders are not the only victims; she says CMOs and HR Directors are often treated as prey, too. All struggle to be strategic as other members see them as the senior leadership as service providers. As service providers, CIOs, CMOs and HR leaders are on the defensive. It is at this point that Nunno does use a sports analogy:
You have to have the ball to score, and defenders never score.
All of this talk of wolves and goal scoring sounds distinctly masculine, so what of women CIOs? Nunno says gender has nothing to do with it. The challenge women have is that society, and therefore organizations, struggle with women being wolves.
An animal analogy society often attaches to women is of a mother bear, someone who protects the cubs. But, she says CEOs need to demand wolves, no matter their gender, because of the challenges organizations face from the climate emergency, inflation, skills shortages and technology:
I want all of them in the leadership team to be competitive killers.
Yet many women struggle with being seen as a wolf, and if they take the online test associated with the book and it finds them to be a wolf, they believe a mistake has been made.
In her book, Nunno writes:
CIOs have an evolving purview, and the territory is no longer the data center." This is so true and certainly a trend I've seen in the last 16 years; the book also acts as a warning:
Like Rome, greater territory equals greater risk.
Again, this is well observed; the success of CIOs is seeing more responsibility placed on technology and technology leaders. To succeed, CIOs will need to use their animal instincts and ensure they identify and allow those same strengths to grow amongst their pack.