IT Leaders Need to Be Business Leaders First, CIO Says

Don Tennant

According to a high-profile IT executive in the health care sector, the key to making an impact as an IT leader is to come to the table as a business leader who happens to be running the technology team, rather than purely as a technologist waiting to receive requirements to fulfill.

That IT executive is Steve Betts, senior vice president and CIO at Health Care Service Corp. (HCSC), a health insurance provider in Chicago. I recently had the opportunity to speak at length with Betts in the context of his participation in Deloitte’s 2016-2017 Global CIO Survey. Betts noted that Deloitte has been engaged in a number of strategic projects at HCSC, “so it was natural for them to reach out to me for a perspective.” In addition, Betts said, “they were aware of the distinctive work that we’re doing here to transition our IT organization, which is very much aligned with many of the themes from the survey.”

I opened the conversation by asking Betts to provide an overview of that transition. He said it has three elements:

At its core, it’s about leveraging technology more effectively for our members, and delivering value to our members to help them navigate an increasingly complex health care landscape. The first key element was to create embedded IT teams with each of our lines of business, and our different enterprise business services. These are nine IT portfolio leaders, senior folks on my team who are aligned with my peers on the senior leadership team, focused with them on developing a joint strategy, a technology-enabled business strategy. That was one of the key things from the survey — the need for that tight partnership and alignment.


Betts said the second element was to focus on a very clear, robust, future architecture:

As we build solutions today — and there’s a lot of investment to support our members through the rapidly changing health care environment — I want to make sure that we are investing that in a way that builds flexibility and agility for the long term. I want to ensure that we’re not delivering individual, craftsman-type solutions to meet near-term needs, but that we are still meeting needs within the context of a broader commitment. It’s taking enterprise architecture from the developer to the boardroom, and getting that strong alignment across our executive team on the need for that.

The third element, Betts said, was to change how they do the work:

We’ve moved to a set of new delivery models — at its core, it’s adopting agile technology. So we’ve moved to an extreme programming approach for our digital assets, and we’re very much focused on our customers, our members, and providing them the capabilities they need. We’re moving to a Scrum agile [methodology] for the bulk of our work, and then even for those technologies that lend themselves more to a traditional model, we’re using an optimized waterfall. So we’re bringing a lot of that same tooling, a lot of the test-first approach, a more iterative approach around requirements that then see periodic releases. It’s multidimensional in its nature, but it’s centered around business alignment, building long-term flexibility, and then impact for our members.

There’s a quote from Betts in the body of the Deloitte report, in which he said, “CIOs can either wait for our business leaders to become technology experts and figure out how to apply it in their lines of business, or we can step in and drive forward-thinking dialogue and bring our best ideas to the table. A key responsibility for me and my senior team is to focus on building and strengthening relationships with C-suite peers to better understand key business processes and drive thinking about how technology drives the impact.” I found that interesting in light of one of the findings of the report that said, “Compared with other CxOs, CIOs were less relationship-oriented, personable, contemplative, and deliberate. … [O]ne significant conclusion is that CIOs need to focus more on building, maintaining, and nurturing relationships. Attention to this possible blind spot may help CIOs in building stronger credibility as leaders.” So I asked Betts if he sees personality type as an issue that’s standing in the way of CIOs building and strengthening relationships with their C-suite peers. He said the short answer is yes:

I think that personality type — and the ability to build relationships and think as a business leader first, and then as a technology leader second — is absolutely essential. It can be a barrier if you don’t have that perspective. I believe that we, as CIOs, have a responsibility to bring technology solutions in the context of the business problems that we’re trying to solve, and the business opportunities that we have. And I think it is truly a partnership where our CEO, Paula Steiner, refers to us as a technology-enabled company. And when you look at a lot of the innovation, and a lot of the transformation that’s happening more broadly in health care, it’s very much technology-fueled. So I really mean it when I say that there is a partnership required. Our business leaders have decades of experience in this industry, and understand the dynamics and the opportunities. My team and I have decades of experience in technology, and have our fingers on the pulse of the latest technology trends and what we’re seeing not only in health care, but in parallel industries. And the combination of those two is how we develop a strategy that is going to help us serve our members effectively for the long term. And the key element of that is the relationships — it’s developing trust, coming to the table as a business leader who happens to be running the technology team, rather than purely as a technologist waiting to receive requirements to deliver. It’s a very different focus.

Betts also shared his insights on topics ranging from diversity to innovation to shadow IT. I’ll cover that portion of the interview in a forthcoming post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


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