2020 vision: The lessons new CIOs are taking into a new year

Strategy and Digital Transformation

Photo of Ian Sheen

Ian Sheen

Technical Lead - Strategy and Transformation, Telstra Purple LinkedIn

Sometimes, starting a new tech leadership position may feel a little like Groundhog Day. You are greeted with the same challenges you faced in your previous role, and quite possibly an ageing estate of legacy systems and tools in desperate need of transformation.

But 2020 has definitely added some twists and turns that stray from the usual plot.

These were the key takeaways from the attendees at Telstra’s recent New In Role community virtual event, where new technology leaders gathered to discuss how they’d navigated key challenges and lessons they’d learned to maximise their impact this turbulent year.

The challenges – and opportunities – of remote influence

Starting a new role was always challenging, without having to do so on the other end of a Teams call.

As a newly appointed tech leader, attendees understood that their ability to meet people in-person and develop influencer relationships had been limited.

But some best practice remains as true in a remote world as it was before social distancing. Attendees underlined the importance of inspiring the board to believe in your plans, in parallel with driving buy-in at the ground level.

And the pandemic even created new opportunities for engagement, especially when it came to ideation. Commonly used tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom have spurred cross-team collaboration. And innovative solutions like virtual whiteboards or interactive meeting tools have empowered new ways of brainstorming that may not have been discovered otherwise.

Technology and IT teams have been hailed as a saving grace in 2020, and many new tech leaders have enjoyed considerably more freedom and recognition than before. The need to urgently execute the plethora of projects to keep businesses functional led to faster decision making, and an increased adoption of agile ways of working.

“I didn’t want to go with a typical model,” said one attendee. “I wanted to get DevOps in place and focus on making small, incremental changes to drive improvement. We were able to make regular, small tweaks to get the business testing things.”

Keeping up with the pace of innovation

As the scale of the challenges 2020 posed to businesses was revealed, new leaders have had to manage not only digital transformation but digital acceleration. The impacts of that pace of change are still emerging.

I think one thing that’s interesting is the amount of innovation,” agreed one attendee. “All year everyone’s been saying COVID has enabled IT and created very quick change. While that is likely to continue, we have to manage and optimise what we have put in place. We have to balance new innovation with regulations, controls, and maintaining the business-as-usual.”

Similarly, the expectations of the wider team for IT implementations have to be managed closely.

“The business has a new expectation for changes to be executed within two to three months now,” continued one new technology leader. “Can we actually continue to work at this pace in the long term?”

We need to be very clear about what we want our long-term strategy to achieve and what is possible. Having discussions with the board about what we can do next year at this pace is good, but it’s important to let them know that this is operating at a pace that will lead to burnout. You have to manage expectations early on.”

Maintaining a long-term vision during a period of short-term demands

The unique trials and tribulations we have endured in 2020 may not have lent themselves to much long-term planning.

Yet, for newly appointed tech leaders, it remains critical to have a purposeful vision for the future of your organisation – even if only to inform short-term decisions and direction.

As one attendee noted, “While it’s important to have a vision of where you want your career to go, you also need to have a vision of where you want to take your organisation. Then you can manage the funds you’ve been given and make sure money is being spent in the right places.”

Another continued, “Since I’ve joined, we’ve not necessarily talked about IT. We’ve talked about the business and what do we need to do.”

Indeed, that focus on aligning technological solutions with over-arching business objectives has been brought into sharper focus due to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has enabled freedoms and created great examples,” said one leader. “If we could get things done so quickly during a pandemic, why can’t we get them done like this in the future?”

But it has also inspired confidence in IT teams and highlighted the essential nature of the work we do. Indeed, one attendee explained how their board had their eyes opened to how much the IT teams do for the company during the crisis.

That recognition will be crucial as we continue to work through uncertainty.

“Unfortunately, this may not be a one-off situation and we may have problems like COVID in the future. We need to stay adaptable.”


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