In the Digital Age, CIO Must Become the CEO’s True Peer: Nitin Seth

In the Digital Age, CIO Must Become the CEO’s True Peer: Nitin Seth

Nitin Seth wears many hats—of a global turnaround leader, an entrepreneur, a senior executive who is passionate about building & transforming businesses, and now a bestselling author. His book, ‘Winning in the Digital Age’, has been widely regarded in the industry as the practical handbook for winning in the post-COVID digital age and becoming a 21st century leader.

Seth now serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Incedo, a US-based digital transformation consulting firm. During his 25+ years of experience in leadership roles, Seth has worked with world-class firms like Mckinsey and Fidelity International. Before becoming the CEO of Incedo, he was the Chief Operating Officer of Flipkart, where he was responsible for customer and supply chain operations, strategy to execution capabilities and corporate functions for the company.

Seth has been elected twice to the NASSCOM Executive Council and was also the Chairperson of the Nasscom Regional Council (NRC) in Haryana.

In an interview with CIO Dialogues, Seth shares his thoughts on what it means to be a ‘Leader’ in the digital-only world, and how CIOs can transform to be true strategic business partners for growth.

The global pandemic redefined leadership in several ways. What is the most valuable lesson that you took home as a CEO from the past year? 

I speak often about the concept of a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) in my latest book. This last year revealed more than ever on a global basis that we truly live in a VUCA world. It is humbling that the forces of nature are so much more powerful and profound than the structures and organizations we have established as a human civilization.

As CEO, the most important lesson I captured was the need for adaptability. The year as we all know played out in very surprising ways. When COVID first appeared in a mass form, it was all about doom and gloom, the economy receding, preparing for the worst. Like all enterprises we prepared, however, over time I realized that it was not about all downside, but opportunity. How can you quickly adapt and what can you do to be more helpful to clients? There were many twists and turns, cost cutting, quickly adding new capabilities, getting close to clients in deeper ways, and connecting with thousands of employees-- to highlight a few.

Intimately linked to this lesson was the need for resilience. The year tested us all, there were moments of feeling low, but you had to keep going, moving forward. This ultimately led to hope and positivity. As a leader it is so important that you see and experience it yourself and then help your team and organization to capture the same vision.

Your book—Winning in the Digital Age—couldn’t have come at a better time! The last one year has had a profound impact on the way organizations approach their digital agendas. Other than the fact that there was a sharp rise in pace of digital adoption, what exactly has fundamentally changed for organizations that have been striving to go digital? 

The big shift I see has been around the debates on Digital that have been around for quite some time- things like digital channels versus physical channels; yes versus no on cloud adoption; public versus private cloud; and many more.

What has happened over the last year is that many of these debates have gone away, have become a moot point due to the sheer growth in client demand. There was no choice this last year, enterprises had to move from a physical model to a digital world as quickly as possible. As things scaled up, you had to build more capacity. In some ways for the CEO and CIO it became easier since the question wasn’t “why” or “what” but about “how”- the “why” question was taken out of their hands.

“Winning in the Digital Age” also promises to answer that one question for which probably everyone is looking for an answer. Why do organizations fail at digital transformation? Could you bring in some clarity? 

This is a key question to ask- absolutely the right question to ask. As noted in the book 70% of digital initiatives fail or do not realize their full impact. Why is that? It is not one thing. There is a failure of strategy AND a failure of execution. Most times organizations will take what they are doing in the physical space and transpose that to their digital business. Digital is an opportunity to rethink the business and building it in a new way. When they do not take advantage of this opportunity, it is a failure of vision and/or strategy.

Equally and more frequently discussed is a failure of execution. There is a lot of focus on the failure of technology initiatives- and that is a major issue. However, the bigger challenge is on the organization side. There are two key items here:

  1. Digital is interdisciplinary and cross functional – but most traditional organizations are structured in functional silos. It becomes a great challenge in terms of executing these cross-functional initiatives.
  2. Speed- in the digital world everything is changing very fast, therefore there is a big premium on executing at speed. Large organizations are not designed to move at speed, they are designed to manage risk and this becomes a significant issue. If a digital initiative takes multiple years to executed, there is no point since the core assumptions behind the strategy will have changed.

But, do you think that the current obsession with ‘speed’ (thanks to COVID) is leading to more and more failures in digital transformation projects?

 It’s important to act fast, but it’s equally important to not get caught in the frenzy. People are often reacting to what is being thrown at them. The only way for leaders to anchor themselves is to understand who their customer is and what the customer wants.

Digital is all about providing a lot of tools, methods and technologies to support your customers in different ways. But, organizations often end up putting the cart before the horse. If you keep reacting to every technology trend that is happening, you will get lost. That is where the CIOs need to really anchor themselves.

Let’s admit that the technology companies today have the best of the salesforce who is bombarding the CIOs with this “buy my technology, and you live happily ever after’ message. For the CIO, sometimes the decisions are thus driven by FOMO!

CIO is at the forefront of several key transformations that enterprises are embarking on. How is this changing the traditional CEO-CIO equation?

Great question. There is a profound shift that needs to happen and is not happening fast enough. The traditional CIO role was a support function. It rarely reported to the CEO, it typically reported to a Chief Operating Officer or often the Chief Financial Officer. Today technology has become a strategic function driving the business and the strategy, and often the largest spend area for most enterprises, so the CIO role is very strategic.

It’s not just about reporting to the CEO, which of course should happen, but it is about being a peer or complement to the CEO. This is a very radical thought, going from two levels below to the same level as the CEO. If you want to put one more person on the board of the company, traditionally it was the CFO, I would argue that it should be the CIO. It is a very strategic role since most of the enterprises’ future strategy will be driven by technology.

The reality is not all CIOs are prepared or ready to be peers to the CEO or make adequate contributions at a board level. Because there is a gap, it ends up getting filled in ways that are sub-optimal. People end up sharing perspectives on technology and technology for the business, who do not know it best- And this ends up causing many downstream problems!!

What are some of the new leadership traits and key skills that the CIOs should focus in the new digital age?  

As discussed earlier, so much of a company’s strategy is being driven by technology that it is critical that the CIO understand the business and the end customer in very deep ways. It is very important. There is a difference between knowing the business at a general level and knowing the business intimately enough to shape strategy. You must know it well enough that you can almost be the Chief Strategy Officer and shape the strategy of the business. That is what is now required- how technology is an input into shaping the future of the business- what does it mean in terms of new business models, customer experience, new services, and new technology enabled competition.

Another big shift for all leaders now, not just CIO’s, is the need to manage duality. The Digital Age poses many contradictions that leaders need to respond to - vision/strategy versus execution, growth versus profitability, short-term versus long-term, customer versus employees, data versus intuition, man versus machine, and many more. It is not enough to find the trade-offs on these complementary values, but leaders need to find win-win solutions. This increased need to manage duality is an important expectation of leaders in the Digital Age.

I think one of the toughest dualities that organizations deal with today is the ‘cost VS innovation’ challenge. How do you see the mounting pressure to cut cost across the board impacting the innovation culture within organizations?

Every company in the world has these two objectives— to cut cost and then to drive up innovation. I don’t know a single company that does not have these two pressures at the same time. The fact is, many of these paradoxes have to co-exist in today’s world. When it comes to cost cutting and innovation, I truly believe that one can support the other. In most of the companies I worked with, for example, there is a focused effort to cut cost on the legacy infrastructure side while investing more on promoting innovation. It’s all about the right balance.