5 Ways CIOs Can Develop Change Management Skills

March 29, 2018

The latest development in the digital transformation of businesses is the augmentation of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) role and its relation to organizational change management. 

Traditionally seen as being a company’s source of truth for all things tech, the role of the CIO is morphing into a more strategic driver developing leadership, communication, and collaboration skills. 

Two studies released just yesterday by Forbes Insights found that over four out of five CIOs believe their role has increased in importance over the last five years. The number one skill that will make CIOs successful in the new business landscape, according to the 400 plus CIOs Forbes surveyed, is their contribution to corporate strategy. 

Change management ranked in the top five of the 13 skills demanded of CIOs to do their jobs effectively — a definite shake-up in the traditionally expected output. 

And while change management and strategic business contributions were always on the skill list of effective CIOs, their rise in priority is opening a path to leadership for the role. 

Related: What is the Digital Economy? 

What is Change Management? 

Change management can be thought of as the process of managing employees and the organization through a transitional period. The process is often best approached using a combination of best practices, tools, and skills. 

The goal of change management is simple: to reduce the impact of the distractions related to change such a shift in priorities or goals while keeping focused on the big picture. 

Given that change is inadvertently chaotic, even if it’s a positive change; reducing the consequential friction is most commonly mitigated by utilizing a change management process catered toward the specific organization and its employees where the change is happening. 

In other words, there are certainly some change management tips that can be universally applied, but the more tailored the process can be to a given organization increases its overall effectiveness as it takes in the nuances of that specific organization that comes with knowing its employees. 

Why the CIO Role is Evolving 

The global digital economy has spurred transformations in consumer needs and purchasing behaviors, the complexity and scale of necessary technology, and operational models. 

To release these pressures and operate at a higher level of digital sophistication and scalability, shifts across the board are happening — some more seismic than others. 

Some experts say the transformation the CIO role is experiencing — mainly due to digitization and reliance on high-tech processes and systems — is one of the most drastic executive-level impacts.

“This new business context is seeing technology finding its way into the heart of the business agenda,’ PwC states in the 2017 report on the changing role of the CIO. “Increasingly, CIOs will hold the key to unlocking competitive advantage, business benefits, and relevant customer engagement, and with this shift comes growing pressure on, and higher expectations of, the IT function.” 

Change drivers include:

  • The hyper-fast pace of technology 
  • The disruption caused by new technologies  
  • Shifts toward customer-centric business models 
  • Growing intensity of compliance, security, and privacy governing the use of new tech
  • Dramatic shifts in consumer needs and behaviors 
  • Saturated and noisy competitive landscape — locally and globally
  • Digital alignment of operational models and supply chains  

“Ignoring the rise of digital business now carries the risk of businesses becoming irrelevant,” PwC states. 

From Service Provider to Strategic Enabler 

“The way CIOs used to work is they’d sit down with, say, the head of sales and say, ‘Okay. What do you want?’,” Martha Heller, CEO of specialty recruitment firm for CIOs, CTOs, and VP-level tech leaders, Heller Search Associates told Forbes Insights.

“Today the CIOs are more proactive. They are saying, ‘here is what we could build together. What do you think?’ This means that a CIO is no longer just a service provider to these domains; they also are, and need to be, an integral part of the larger business,” says Heller.

The shift from service provider to strategic enabler is evident in the role’s expansion and influence across the business as well as its relation to the success of individual business functions such as regulatory compliance, R&D/Innovation, distribution, and logistics, the Forbes studies found. 

CIOs are now in the position to foster mutually beneficial two-way relationships with internal and external stakeholders from marketing and sales to customers and suppliers. 

The transformation is compounded further with a new avenue for CIOs to leverage organization-wide collaboration. The CIO is now going to be increasingly relied on by the business to be a strategic thinker and change manager while also being grounded in technology. 

The new facets of the role will require new and unprecedented levels of collaboration across the business — a necessity for this level of wide-spread change to stick. 

Five Ways CIOs Can Develop Change Management Skills 

Again, while facilitating the development of skills like change management has always been in the CIOs wheelhouse, the utilization by the business of the skill is increasing the demand for it be more fine-tuned and polished. 

And despite CIOs generally welcoming this shift in their role and the increased opportunities to display their value to the business that comes with it, at the end of the day, change is challenging and has varying impacts on teams and on individuals. Proactively identifying the potential impacts will set up the CIO and the process for success.  

For CIOs who are assuming the role as the executive champion owning the change management process, here are five tips to consider when the process is being developed and when it is deployed: 

1. Conduct a Self-Assessment 

One of the best ways to learn about yourself and the current state of your skillset is by conducting a self-assessment

Examining the strengths and weaknesses of individuals on your team may be easier than looking inward and learning about yourself. Yet, the results are insightful not just for your own knowledge, but for your team to understand how to work with you better and vice versa. 

“A self-assessment, to be effective, must take into account an individual’s work-related values, interests, personality type, and aptitudes,” says Dawn Rosenberg McKay of The Balance. “All of these characteristics make up who you are, so ignoring any of them won’t give you an accurate answer.”  

The information gathered from your self-assessment can help you make more informed decisions on where you can focus your improvement efforts and where you can feel confident.  

McKay suggests to consider the following four main attributes when conducting a self-assessment: 

  • Values: the things that are important to you, like an achievement, status, and autonomy. 
  • Interests: what you enjoy doing, i.e. playing gold, taking long walks and hanging out with friends.
  • Personality: a person’s individual traits, motivational drives, needs, and attitudes. 
  • Aptitudes: the activities you are good at, such as information systems or data security. An aptitude may be a natural skill or one you acquired.  

It’s best practice for leaders to consistently run self-assessments and communicate the insights to their employees and even the organization. It’s a great way to gut check where you stand and how you can better work with people and for people to better work with you. 

For times of change, it’s especially important to remain highly self-aware and remain as in control as possible in order to ease the transition. 

While we have suggested the four main attributes that McKay as defined above, the beauty of a self-assessment is that you can design it for different contexts, such as in times of change or when someone joins a team, for example. This helps to get the most out of it and best use the insights from the exercise in the most effective way.

A lot of people claim they love change — I am one of them — but in reality, I don’t actually thrive in times of change and it doesn’t always bring the best out in me due to how change typically aligns with my personality type. 

By letting my teammates know this about me alongside the data from a self-assessment backing up my assumptions, provides a narrative I can then communicate to my team and my manager that when the change occurs, I may need more support than normal. 

Balancing emotions at work and in times of change is tricky — when there are ways in which emotions can be backed by supporting evidence and welcomed in open and constructive discussions, the insights can be incorporated — mitigating the potential of emotions muddying the business objective and alienating employees. 

2. Establish a Clear Vision 

When there is a clearly communicated vision of the change, employees understand it better and the impact it may have on their daily work life and responsibilities. 

A change vision should include the objective of the change so employees’ expectations are set and there is little to no room for speculation.  

And while the change vision may knock it out of the park, how and when it’s communicated can either rally employee support or flatline before it has a chance. 

Drawing on his experience in a constant state of change as a Navy SEAL, Brent Gleeson, now a motivational speaker and founder of change management firm TakingPoint Leadership, suggests keeping these six tips in mind when crafting a vision statement for change: 

  • Simplicity. Simplicity is often always the best approach to communication. The change vision should be articulated concisely within five minutes or less with succinct outcomes at the heart of the message.
  • Authenticity. Keep the vision authentic by aligning it with the company’s culture and values. Leaders have a bad rep of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Authenticity brings in a high level of trust. When a powerful change vision is communicated and immediate action is followed-through, trust is strengthened — a critical component of change management. 
  • Multichannel. Communicate the vision using multiple company channels such as the company newsletter, company-wide meetings, posters throughout the office in common areas, in one-on-one meetings, in internal chat programs such as Slack or Skype.
  • Repetition. For the vision to resonate with employees, they need to hear it over and over to the point where you will likely feel annoying. It’s been said that the average person has to hear something at least seven times before it becomes a part of their recall.
  • Consistent behavior. Similar to the authenticity element, if a change vision is communicated through multiple channels, simply outlining its objectives in an authentic way, it will fail if the behaviors from the top down deviate away from the new vision. Behaviors must align with the change vision and modeled by leadership. Without maintaining behavioral consistency, the risk of resistance increases exponentially due to a breach in trust.
  • Feedback. Welcome all feedback throughout the process and in all forms — this is a theme throughout effective change management processes. Not only is feedback a great way to check-in on the current state of things but is a way to establish an ongoing dialogue. The insights can help keep employee morale high and also improve the process iteratively. 

3. Communicate Honestly and Often 

In general, communication is challenging for companies. During times of change, communication is an element that should be carefully crafted. Employees are often left in the dark when it comes to organizational changes and is expected to adhere to change without knowing why the change is happening in the first place. 

Frequent, honest, and well-distributed communication is critical to the effectiveness of a change management process. 

Communication should include: 

  • Why the change is happening, it’s mission and vision as it relates to the business as a whole 
  • What the impacts of the change will be in the company (the good, the bad, and the ugly) 
  • What the impact of the change will be on each employee (the good, the bad, and the ugly) 
  • Only definitive answers that the CIO or other executive sponsors know as true versus assumption or hearsay 

Communication should be: 

  • An open door policy for any and all questions 
  • Structured as an open conversation about the change 
  • A proactive way to relay what’s coming rather than what has happened
  • Formal and informal  

4. Empathize

Keeping the human element is also critical in times of change as change often triggers a range of emotions. Effective change managers avoid telling their employees how to feel and encourage them to openly and honestly discuss the emotional impact of the change. 

Rather than sympathizing during this time, it’s more effective to understand and share that feeling by actively listening and empathizing. Sympathy has a reverse impact during high-stress times and makes an employee feel pitied and even small. 

“Empathy — the ability to read and understand one’s emotions, needs, and thoughts — is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence and a critical leadership skill,” says Marion Barraud of the Harvard Business Review. “It is what allows us to influence, inspire, and help people achieve their dreams and goals. Empathy enables us to connect with others in a real and meaningful way, which in turn makes us happier — and more effective — at work.” 

Managers who lack emotional intelligence often cause good people to leave and teams to lack functionality, engagement, and respect. And while lacking empathy has some detrimental effects, it’s a common personality trait shared among results-driven managers. 

The focus on results for managers makes undoubtedly a great business asset, but when it comes to managing people in a team and leading them, empathy encourages managers to slow down to observe, listen and ask questions of their team. 

When a manager is truly empathetic, team members will feel more comfortable talking about how they feel rather than fearing being dismissed by their manager. The long-term impact and bonds created on the relationship side of management far out weight the growing pains of forming more empathetic skills.  

This people side of management is one of the biggest shifts for CIOs who are deeply rooted in the technology and not so often rooted in people skills. Developing empathy comes with time and patience. Sure, some people are just born with more empathetic tendencies than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s a not a learned skill that can be developed. 

When developing these skills, especially for those who find it to be a learned behavior, ask for more feedback from your employees on how it’s working and where you can improve. While improving the skill, asking for feedback will allow employees to see you’re actively improving and taking their opinions seriously. 

5. Prepare for resistance  

A negative human response to change is a natural instinct and a built-in defense mechanism, for better or for worse. When it comes to workplace change, social psychology tells us that resistance is a natural response and no matter how positive or negative the change is, employees will respond negatively time and again. 

Knowing resistance to change is simply how we are wired as human beings, helps change managers better prepare for the inevitable and help mitigate wide-spread resistance. 

Combining some of the tactics above such as clear, consistent and authentic communication, change managers must show and tell their own enthusiasm for the change. 

With the feedback loops we discussed earlier built-in to the change management process, resistance issues will surface as they occur and are more manageable to address. We all know what happens when we bottle our emotions — they eventually boil over and cause more harm than if they openly discussed in context. 

And since resistance is to be expected, being open about it from the get-go is a great proactive way to take on the challenge head-on. 

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