Technology is no longer a cost center. It is an essential player advancing your growth.

I’m an executive with a deep technical capability, so it’s easy to guess in which camp I belong. Understanding how things work and possessing a knack for solving puzzles are all skills integral to becoming a strategic technology leader. There is a catch, though. Developing a deep technical capability requires specialization, and therein lies the problem for most technical leaders.

Colleagues who are a mile deep and an inch wide struggle to communicate beyond their area of expertise and often cannot grasp the big picture. In fact, this exists in all areas of technical expertise, from technology to specific insurance coverage to sales methodologies.

Those of us who choose a technology career do so because we love the details. We find elegance in the development of an efficient process. We inherently dive deeper to find the best solution, often finding a personal gratification in our own. The challenge for the technologist who strives to become a CIO is to loosen the grasp on the fine details and broaden the universe of expertise at a loss of individual depth. This loss of depth is mitigated through development of teams. This is the true key to becoming a strategic leader. 

Just as there are generals in the military who spent time as grunts, your technology team should be led by someone who spent time in the trenches. It is then your chief information officer’s responsibility to broaden their view.

The first stop on the journey is to develop a solid knowledge of your firm’s business operations.  Think about what your information technology department truly does: IT supports the operations of the agency. It’s impossible to effectively support something you do not understand. A true CIO must firmly understand the operations of the agency.

And what exactly does that mean? IT is traditionally viewed as a cost center. As such, the closest many departments come to making operational business decisions is developing an annual budget and onboarding acquisitions. If this sounds like your firm, you’ve missed an enormous opportunity. As the primary support vehicle for the business, your CIO should have a firm grasp on your lines of business, your agency’s structure and the underlying reasons for that structure. In fact, your CIO should be intimately involved with the business process used to service your clients.

Why? These processes should be automated and efficient. Many agencies don’t have this sort of leader, and the result is easy to spot: manual processes, repeated effort, disparate unmanaged data and loss of opportunity. It’s unrealistic to expect your account executives to dream up automation solutions to solve the daily inefficiencies they’re drowning in. It’s equally unlikely that an IT department with its head in the engine will solve the issues either. Most agencies operate without ever realizing these issues even exist.

And what happens? Over time, revenue per employee drops, your colleagues grow increasingly frustrated and clients leave for easier-to-manage solutions. It’s death by attrition. The gap needs to be filled by someone who truly understands both worlds and can see the entire forest.

Along with technical grasp and business aptitude, the CIO needs a new view of the financial side of the business. The traditional cost-centric view of IT has led to a generation of IT leaders who have developed a hat-in-hand approach to developing solutions. We design an approach, generate a list of costs, create a simple ROI assumption and ask for funding. This approach is too simplistic and often impedes progress. As an agency executive, you don’t think about your firm’s finances in simplistic, cost-centric terms. If the entirety of your CIO’s financial language lives in the world of developing costs and asking for funding, you’ll need to foster a different approach.

IT once solely focused on internal usage, but this is changing. The main focus of agency technology is moving away from internal processing into the world of customer interaction. As such, the concepts of financial sustainability now apply to your technology department, and the financial aptitude of your CIO is becoming increasingly important.

A CIO is a hybrid executive—one who is focused on internal efficiency, generation of business and direct client interaction with your core technology skills. But business and finance are critical to the success of your firm’s technology efforts as well. These core attributes should be folded into a leader who is a master communicator, team developer and leader. Your CIO should spend the majority of his time meeting with your practice leaders, operational staff and even your customers. The insights gained from these interactions are then used to continually refine your strategic road map as your firm grows.

Our industry has many true CIOs, but we’ll need more if we are to thrive. Cultivating these characteristics in your agency’s IT leader and developing a true leadership partner is critical as you navigate your firm through an increasingly automated industry.