The clout of senior technology executives is growing in the C-suite as more companies act on aspirations to become technology companies. But without trust in their actions and counsel, a company can fail to innovate at the pace it wants to in an age of increasing technology dependency.
For Ryan Downing, VP and CIO of Enterprise Business Solutions at Principal Financial Group, a key element of trust-building between different parts of the organization is to encourage contributions wherever relevant, no matter where they come from.
"I've got to see the table to weigh in on other things and offer ideas, just as they've got a seat at the table away and offer ideas on tech things," said Downing.
More than one-third of boards of directors view CIOs or other senior-most technology executives as a trusted ally that serves as a key advisor, according to Gartner's Roadmap to Renewal: Insights From the 2022 Board of Directors Survey.
But nearly half of board members surveyed have a more conservative view of tech leadership. For 48% of board members, the CIO is someone who often works in partnership with senior business leaders, and only occasionally provides input to the board.
To build an ecosystem of trust, it's important to create a framework of communication, analysts and executives agree. It's up to technology leaders to ensure they've fully evolved from the order-takers of the past to become advisors who work alongside the C-suite with accountability, empathy and transparency in their actions.
Downing highlighted the connection between his team and that of the company's chief marketing officer Beth Wood. Their work together is built around improving how customers interact with the company.
"We are constantly working arm-in-arm and thinking about what's the best way to move our customer strategy forward," said Downing.
Components of trust
"There's no executive that can just hide from any conversation related to technology," said Raphael Ly, VP at Pariveda Solutions. "CIOs have to have relationships with all of the C-suite."
But sometimes the problem is CIOs won't have a seat at the "big boy" table, said Ly. This "creates a kink in the communication chain."
Companies have added the role of convener to the new set of abilities required of a technology leader.
"By the very nature of what we do, we do a lot of bringing people together at all levels of leadership," said Downing.
In navigating projects, one question that can cut through internal politics is: how can companies do what's best for the customer?
"But you can't have those conversations unless you have really good relationships and partnerships," said Downing. "Spending the time in really understanding each of those areas, those leaders, what are they trying to accomplish, how does what they do line up to our broader enterprise initiatives, that's what helps to create that environment so that when you do have to have a challenging conversation, the relationship is there, the respect is there."
Innovation needs trust
Trust-building is a key element in the tool set of a modern CIO. It's a reflection of how their role has evolved.
"Future-fit technology executives are becoming partners to the business, rather than order takers or backend operators, so an evolving relationship requires new dynamics," said Sara Watson, principal analyst at Forrester.
While transformational tech projects can be disruptive, CIOs can partner with other business leaders to determine customer outcomes and goals, which leads to "a shared understanding driving the change, to help navigate even the uncomfortable or messy parts."
Ethics also come into the fold when building relationships of trust among the C-suite, especially as employees and consumers gain greater awareness of the implications of technology.
"Tech execs need to start thinking about developing a responsible and ethical technology strategy," said Watson. "The techlash is real, and tech has lost customer and employee trust."
In response, technology firms are creating new functions, processes and review boards to mitigate concerns about specific technologies, such as AI, facial recognition and data use.
When a business fails to infuse trust in C-suite relationships, the ultimate risk is clear: a slowdown in innovation, according to Ly.
"We come to impasses, we can't make decisions," said Ly. "We have stalemates. And what's the consequence of stalemates? It's latency in performance. If you can't make a decision on the fate of your company, for launching a product or introducing a service, then your speed to market is immediately hurt. You just can't compete."