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Podcast: The Curious CIO

How do you get to the top spot in technology? And how do you stay there? Freeman Clarke’s ‘The Curious CIO’ brings you the stories of technology leaders, how they made it to the Boardroom, and what they learned along the way. Featuring CIO James Alcock and CEO (and former CIO) Steve Clarke, ‘The Curious CIO’ is a conversation about leadership, business, and technology.

For over 20 years, James Alcock has helped CEOs and business leaders ensure long-term success with sound technology strategies. He focuses on harnessing digital innovations to reduce risk, increase competitive advantage, and add value.
Steve Clarke is an IT and technology expert with a deep interest in leadership and career development for CIOs. He is co-founder and director of Freeman Clarke, the UK’s largest and most experienced team of fractional CIOs, CTOs, and IT Directors.

Freeman Clarke provide fractional, Board-level IT leadership for mid-market businesses. Our technology leaders become part of the senior team to drive growth with technology—at a fraction of the cost.

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E1: Sajjad Ahmed: From a Pakistani wheatfield to CIO (and back) 
The podcast kicks off with Sajjad Ahmed, CIO at International SOS, who started thinking about leadership as a 9-year-old in Pakistan. Ahmed explains his journey from Pakistan to a London boardroom, his motivations and leadership style, and how he keeps a CEO engaged in the technology function.


Don’t force your employees back to the office. Instead, help them do their jobs…

COVID drove people out of the office. Now other external pressures are driving them back. And none of these external dynamics have been universally welcomed. Instead, they make people change their habits by force.

It’s true that many see working from home as a ‘good thing,’ and it’s often suggested that it was going to happen anyway—COVID just accelerated it. However, for many it’s a problem: space or privacy issues, a lack of team dynamics or the appropriate tools, loneliness and hidden costs—all these issues make working from home a far less attractive prospect.

It’s clear though that managers seem to have the most difficulty with the change. Mostly it’s a phenomenon amongst less sophisticated managers whose self-worth is linked to eyeballing their teams to ensure they have their noses to the grindstone. Great leaders don’t need that kind of engagement because they’re output-driven: why care where someone gets their work done, so long as they meet their targets?

What’s concerning is that staff are returning to the office not because they want to, but because they see it as the only option—Hobson’s Choice. Hobson was a 16th-century English livery stable owner who offered customers the choice of taking the horse nearest the door or no horse at all. So there really was no choice. This worked for Hobson—it prevented the best horses from being overused—but it wasn’t so fantastic for his clients.

Many of our employees will feel this way about returning to the office. In the US, many managers are telling staff to get back the office or find another job. In the UK, where the cost of living has skyrocketed, it’s freeze at home or stay warm in the office. Either way, not much of a choice.

So what should leaders do about it?

I think, as leaders, we should chuck Hobson’s choice. Let staff feel empowered to make the decision that’s right for them—in particular junior staff, who have never experienced high-inflation, diminished buying power, and politically unstable times.

We need also to ensure that staff have adequate support. There’s a tendency to complain about the level of support new people in the workplace appear to need, especially when they’re young. Right now, I’d say it’s fully justified. It’s a turbulent era, and although older people may have lived through similar moments, everyone is stressed and distracted.

So we need to assess the individual and their needs rather than create one or two solutions for all. If we provide flexibility, allowing people to work when, where, and how they want, they will appreciate the autonomy and bring their best selves to the task, wherever they are.

I know from my own company that our CIOs and CTOs take great benefit from being completely in charge of their own diary; many say it is liberating.

Finally, we’ve got to avoid playing Big Brother. There have been some recent horror stories in the press about managers implementing privacy-invading surveillance of their staff, and in my experience that only drives people to either game the system or rebel against it. If someone has enough time to deliver all I’ve asked them to and still has time to goof off during work hours, that’s my fault, not theirs.

So, if your team is going back into the office more, don’t see that as a good sign. See it as something that needs to be discussed and understood. This is not a time for, ‘Oh, nice to see you in person at last!’ Instead, it’s a time for more personal engagement. It’s a time to find out whether they’re okay and have everything they need to operate effectively.

These are the hardest times to be a leader but also the most rewarding.

Top 8 challenges for IT leaders in 2021

At the beginning of 2021, outlined what they believed would be this year’s top eight challenges for IT leaders:

  1. Facilitating the future of work
  2. Securing the hybrid enterprise
  3. Flipping the 80/20 IT landscape
  4.  Skilling up for accelerated digital roadmaps
  5. Scrutinising IT budgets
  6. Maintaining 24/7 uptime
  7. Battling burnout
  8. Blending safety and innovation

Well, okay, I get all these. But is this as good as it gets? Couldn’t we aim a bit higher?

For example, we shouldn’t be ‘facilitating the future of work,’ we should be driving it! As for 24/7 uptime, surely we’ve all got that in place already? Particularly now, when technology has enabled businesses to carry on despite the pandemic?

I think we can easily come up with a more inspirational and impactful list—especially when we’re looking for talking points to bring to the CEO.

In this accelerated moment, CEO attentions are more than usually divided. But part of your job as a CIO is to make a case to the CEO for how technology makes a difference to competitive advantage. Technology can and should be the key to more rapid growth, to outstripping the competition, and to becoming more profitable.

And yet the above list would have us focus on infrastructure. If we were in a car, it’s as if the next five sets of traffic lights have all turned green, and yet we’re driving along in second gear: admiring the scenery when we should be hitting the gas.

So, what do I think we should be doing now? We need to focus on getting the CEO excited about their IT. And we need to demonstrate, as CIOs, that we’re commercially astute businesspeople and not propeller heads. We need to show that we’re thinking about how to help the company grow faster and make more money.

So, what about this list instead:

1.      Omnichannel everywhere. Everyone engages with the business however they wish, whether they’re suppliers, customers, or employees.

2.      Bring the customers closer. Digitisation of everything—now!

3.      Integrate and automate to speed up the business; RPA, APIs and Middleware to deliver a connected business.

4.      Real BI/MI to make delivering data the lifeblood of the business and enable fantastic decision-making.

5.      Give the business what it wants. Departments should want to come to you first.

6.      Support innovation. Create sandboxes where employees can safely innovate.

7.      Programmes and projects delivered on time, within budget, and to specification. Always.

8.      Right person in the right seat on the right bus. Wrong people off the bus.

Consider this list less about challenges than priorities. After all, if there is anything that past eighteen months has taught us, it’s that challenges have a way of finding you whether you plan for them or not.

Are you on your “A”​ game? Keeping yourself up to date has never been more vital…

FACT: The CIO/CTO position is the only Board position where the necessary knowledge and skills need constant updating. Just like Moore’s Law has seen the exponential increase in computing power, so has the IT expert’s need to stay abreast of technology. It can be a nightmare. CEOs want their teams to be on their ‘A’ Game, and for us that means constantly updating our knowledge and our ability to handle new tech.

And the stakes are high. IT increasingly underpins all strategic business objectives—no department can deliver them without IT. It’s our team that increasingly underwrites the strategic objectives and enables the CEO to deliver them and to provide shareholder value. So we absolutely must understand the latest technology and being able to discuss options, ideas, and principles with department heads.

We don’t have to know everything. I’m not talking about in-depth ‘build-a-layered-network’ type of knowledge. I mean having enough technical knowledge to be able to innovate, to make informed strategic decisions, to keep the business ahead of the competition, and to know what the technicians are talking about.

This means that a fundamental part of knowledge acquisition is deciding what to learn, how to learn and when to learn. So, how do you choose?

We use a simple diagram:

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The idea then is to figure out where each bit of technology falls on the continuum. Here is what I suggest:

1. Think about your current situation and the needs. You might even make a list:

·      What do you need?

·      What does the company need?

·      What does your team need?

2. Once you have the needs in front of you, prioritise:

Where is the most urgent need for knowledge? Concentrate on that area, but don’t ignore the others—make sure they have an appropriate place in the order.

3. Work out how best to gain this knowledge. There are a number of ways to learn:

·      The traditional route. Websites, books, magazine articles, etc. Many CIOs we know set up Google Alerts on topics they want to stay on top of. This method is useful for finding new knowledge or innovative ideas.

·      The on-the-go route. Podcasts, TED sessions, audiobooks and the like—sources that you can learn from when you’re driving or exercising. This method works well for topic assessment or getting under the skin of a specific technology.

·      The planned attendance route. These are occasions when you’ve signed up to a training session, a conference, or a webinar, because the topic is interesting and useful, but it’s not an immediate priority. It’s also useful for ‘large topic’ learning.

·      Just-in-time. This is when you’re just a few pages ahead of those you’re working with. This sort of knowledge can be gained from peers, colleagues, or even the technical teams. You just need to know how to ask the right questions. This is not a substitute for the other routes; it has to be ‘as-well-as,’ not ‘instead-of.’

·      ‘Find an expert who knows.’ Look within your network for someone with an in-depth knowledge of the subject. Buy them a coffee or lunch and find out the salient points. Also: ask the expert how he or she acquires their knowledge; they may know a website or seminar you haven’t heard of.

Remember that for the most part this is not about monolithic knowledge. It’s about distinguishing which pieces of knowledge will be useful to you and the business. Prince2, for example, is all very well. But if you try and implement the whole thing you lose credibility. Instead, implement a few useful parts as the basis of sensible project management. The key to knowledge acquisition is knowing which bits to leave on the cutting room floor.

CIOs and CTOs have a complex job, and their knowledge base reflects that. It’s not just the functional IT knowledge they need to keep improving, there’s all the IT leadership knowledge as well. Not to mention the business and commercial skills, like forecasting and budgets. Whilst these other areas of knowledge don’t change at half the speed functional IT does, they do move on. So you need to constantly review the diagram above, adjusting your learning objectives accordingly.

A successful CIO or CTO will be the one who invests time and energy in judiciously updating their knowledge and skills. If it’s not yet a priority for you, it damn well should be! The fundamental point is don’t let it become something that you look back on and realise you should have done more of. Regret can be a painful thing to have in a career.


Bringing the human touch to the online workplace

During COVID and the associated lockdowns, most business interactions were restricted to a few square inches of real-estate on someone’s screen. A CIO I know well said it was the lockdown that made him realise how much he needed interaction with his colleagues to be effective. Indeed, most of us were used to having a presence in the office—walking around, enjoying ad-hoc chats and water-cooler discussions, updating colleagues at the lunch table, whatever. Remote working brought all these spontaneous human interactions to screeching halt and not a lot has replaced them.

Has remote work made us more efficient? I don’t think so, but it has certainly made us think more about communication and how to regain what we’ve lost.

Over the past year, I’ve gathered a number of ways CIOs and CTOs have attempted to resolve some of these issues. Below are four ways that have worked and helped to regain some of the human presence that was lost during lockdown:

1.     The doctor is in. Like Lucy from Peanuts, have a regular conference call planned and in everyone’s diary. When I set these up, attendance varied from none to twenty, but when people did drop by, work was only about 20% of the stuff we nattered about. Also, whilst it was scheduled for thirty minutes, it often went on for significantly longer, indicating that people were eager to engage.

2.     The ‘always-on’ call. Designate a team or an individual to always have a channel open. I’ve done this with outsourced functions, where they can immediately interact with a member of the employed team without having to email or call. It’s particularly useful for agile working with distributed dev teams.

3.     The cafe. There are systems out there now that allow a persistent presence; we’ve been using Kumospace. People pop in whilst doing something else, on the off chance someone else might pop in as well. We also used it recently to provide the much-missed informal chat sessions we normally have at our conference. It was the first time I’ve seen people stick around in a conference call, virtually moving between groups and conversations like in IRL. Some said it was almost as good as the real thing.

4.     The regular update. We suggest to our CIOs and CTOs that they have a regular session in their diary, usually once a week, to catch up with the CEO one-to-one. They should have these meetings even when there’s nothing on the agenda to talk about. I know a CIO who keeps a set of Pictionary cards to hand in case conversation lulls. Even for the CEO, there’s time for a little fun! (It couldn’t hurt to have regular meetings with the rest of the Board as well.)

I am often asked about innovative technology for our new ways of working. I don’t see any game-changing new systems out there; most are simply a version of video conferencing. So we need to make do with what we’ve got. Similarly, none of the above ideas are massively innovative. But with some effort and thought, we can approach, if not replace, the human touch of office life.

Look out for another post on the challenges particular to the hybrid office.

CIO, CTO, or CISO: Which one do I need?

We’re often approached by ambitious mid-market CEOs looking to transform their business with IT and technology. The question of how to do it depends on the particular business. (When a salesperson tells you their product is exactly what you need to fix all your problems, hide your wallet.) What all these businesses have in common, however, is the need for an experienced, business-minded IT expert in the C-suite who can lead the transformation.

Another question quickly arises: What kind of expert? Does your mid-market business need a CIO, a CTO, or a CISO? Let’s take you briefly through each position so you can make an informed decision.

What is a CIO?

A Chief Information Officer (CIO) is a senior-level position with ultimate responsibility for technology, teams, and suppliers. CIOs provide clear oversight of systems, processes, data reporting, and staff — when it comes to IT and technology, the buck stops with them.

CIOs will actively contribute to C-suite discussions on higher-level decisions and will ensure the IT solutions support the business strategy. Their focus is on business improvements, risk management, and cybersecurity, rather than delivering the day-to-day technology.

In addition, CIOs drive integration, automation, and transformation projects, such as an ERP or custom software development.

CIOs have decades of experience in all aspects of technology and IT, so they tend to earn high salaries. (See our article on CIO salaries.)

What is a CTO?

A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is also a senior-level position, someone with deep business and IT experience who can create, lead, and deliver technology strategies and solutions to accelerate business growth. The CTO, however, will be more involved with delivering technology initiatives, for example overseeing the development of custom software or apps.

For organizations with both a CIO and CTO, the CIO is usually senior. But the positions should be complementary, especially if a business is looking to grow. And while there will of course be overlap in terms of skillsets, they are two different positions, with different career paths.

CTOs also have decades of experience and tend to earn high salaries, if not quite as high as a CIO. (See our article on how to determine CTO salaries.)

What is a CISO?

A Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) is also a senior-level executive, and usually works closely with a CIO and/or a CTO. As a mid-market business becomes larger and more complex, it often needs a specialist to own and lead cybersecurity, so they hire a CISO.

A CISO is specifically responsible for the security and safekeeping of technology, information, and systems. They communicate risk mitigation strategies to their senior colleagues in plain English, while driving the leadership and cultural changes that make security a reality.

This means that CISOs have ownership of cybersecurity for a business’s infrastructure, applications, and systems and processes. They manage information risk and regulatory compliance, as well as disaster recovery and business continuity planning.

CISOs are highly specialized and in-demand, so they too command high salaries.

Paying for a CIO, CTO, or CISO

Hopefully you now have a better idea of the differences between the positions and what your own business may need. There is also the question of how to pay for them. Mid-market businesses often don’t want, don’t need, or can’t find a full-time CIO, CTO, or CISO. That’s why Freeman Clarke uses the fractional or part-time model. (See our article, Why Fractional?)

We are not a recruitment firm. We’re a team of 85 senior-level CIOs, CTOs, and CISOs who can join your senior leadership team to own and deliver your IT strategy and cybersecurity on a fractional basis.

This means that we bring transformational business benefits at a fraction of the cost. Our expert technology leaders create, lead, and deliver systems and digital strategies that will drive growth and innovation, help you seize new opportunities, and ensure you’re safe from cyber concerns, without harming your bottom line.

The range and experience of our IT leaders also means that you’re not limited to the strict definition of any of the above roles. We get you the IT leader you need, which might draw together different aspects of a CIO, CTO, or CISO.

If you’d like to learn how we’ve helped mid-market businesses like yours, read our client stories. Or Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Visit our CIOs, CTOs & CISOs Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

When You Hire a Freeman Clarke Principal, How Does It Actually Work?

What happens when you hire a Freeman Clarke IT leader, or “principal?” How do we actually work with our mid-market clients to drive growth? Our own CEO Graeme Freeman explains what to expect.

Find out more in our Client Stories. Or visit our CIOs, CTOs & CISOs Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.


Do I need a CISO?

A Chief Information Security Officer is a senior-level executive responsible for protecting your data and intellectual property, and your information systems and processes. They understand your business strategy, your legal and market requirements, and your business’s risk appetite, and they ensure that these are all met.

They are also responsible for planning and implementing a business’s IT security strategy to make security decisions, to assess risk, and to keep the C-suite apprised of risk and risk management.

More broadly, they provide leadership and management throughout the business at an IT, process, and cultural level.

The fact is that security has become an enormous concern in our lives, and we need to keep our eyes open.

In a business the problem is magnified ten- or a hundred-fold. Aside from email and phone scams, which target businesses as well as individuals, there is a security risk every time your business hires a new employee or vendor, inks a new contract, connects your network to a new device, outsources any task, even makes a simple financial transaction. The risk is bigger when you take on investors or merge with or acquire another company.

This is why many companies hire a CISO. This is not the person who will help your company streamline its systems and processes or guide it through an ERP project. Nor is it the person who will set up the firewalls or install anti-virus software. Instead, a CISO is a strategic hire to put security at the heart of your business systems and processes.

CISOs become especially valuable as businesses become larger and more established. The job of security and risk management will simply become too big for the CIO or CTO. Another way to look at it is that the CISO frees up the CIO to implement the IT and technology that will help the business grow.

In the meantime, you can read CIO vs CTO: What’s the difference?

Why does it need to be someone in the C-suite? Because security is not simply a tech matter. Many of the highest-profile hacks have affected companies with highly expert teams and the most sophisticated security technology. Good security requires a commercially-minded leader who fully understands the detailed technical issues rather than just a technical expert.

A serious security lapse could cause your business catastrophic financial and reputational damage. A minor security lapse will cost you time and money. Any kind of lapse may have legal implications, resulting in lawsuits and fines.

On the other hand, addressing security concerns can provide a marketing advantage. In many industries, companies select suppliers who have impressive cybersecurity and compliance certifications. Thus having a credible leader like a CISO enables you to gain new clients, or secure funding, or generally raise your business’s profile.

CISOs are highly specialized and in-demand, so they command high salaries. Many mid-market businesses simply can’t afford to pay another executive’s full salary. Or they may be in an in-between stage where the security concerns are too time-consuming for a CIO but don’t yet merit a full-time salary. That’s why we often suggest a “fractional” or part-time CISO.

If you have questions about CISOs — or any other aspect of IT and technology, feel free to get in touch. We’re always up for a no-strings conversation about cybersecurity or any other aspect of running a mid-market business.

Visit our CIOs, CTOs & CISOs Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

Why Are the First 3 Months With a Client So Important?

The first three months are a crucial time when a mid-market business hires a CIO or CTO. Find out why it can make a difference — when it’s done right.

Visit our Digital Transformation Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

Making a Roadmap for Growth

We all want to see our businesses grow, but without a technology roadmap for growth, it can create a lot of headaches for a mid-market business. Our experts discuss the value of a roadmap for growth and why you should start one.

Visit our Digital Transformation Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

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