Need a change agent? Look to your CIO
In his 50 years in the tech industry, Francis (Fran) Dramis has discovered his passions: investing in startup and emerging businesses and helping leaders give meaning to people who work for them.
In addition to comprehending the technical, financial and logistical aspects of running a technology business, the author, investor, retired CIO, and change agent understands what fuels morale and aids employee retention and innovation.
For his keynote address at the Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards program, Dramis, the former CIO of BellSouth, plans to present the importance of CIOs becoming meaningful interveners in the lives of their employees.
“They need to go beyond the task of just producing output and help the people working for them get meaning from their tasks,” Dramis said.
The CIO Challenge
Dramis, who also judges CIO-related awards, is attune with what makes an effective and innovative leader.
While CTOs are purely technically focused, he said, CIOs take what the CTO has and blends that with their business knowledge. CIOs must convert businesspeople into accepting that technology will change their business processes.
“That kind of nudging is really tough,” Dramis said. “A good CIO will be the instigator of the transformation of a major business. I was always on the cusp of a transformational event that allowed me to do work in a different way.”
As senior vice president, CIO and chief security officer of BellSouth, which AT&T acquired, Dramis was responsible for technology in the company, software connected into public network switches, data and physical security. In other words, he helped BellSouth evolve from being just a phone company to becoming a more connected, technology company.
Long before COVID, Dramis convinced the business leaders he worked with that salespeople didn’t need offices. As long as they had technology, they could work remotely and be more flexible.
“Today, change is upon us because of COVID and other things, and working remotely is the norm,” he said. “A good CIO would have known that’s where it was going in advance and been capable of capturing important information and social interaction prior to COVID to make remote work happen.”
A good CIO also realizes that changes need to be implemented in “digestible chunks,” he said. “If they implement technology too fast, Bob or Joan, who have been handling it the same way for 10 years and doing it well, may not be able to keep up,” he said.
The CIO Path
Dramis, who authored three books, including “The Four Secrets of Retention: Holding Mindshare in a Transitional World,” has decades worth of advice for seasoned CIOs as well as for those just beginning post-secondary education and considering careers in information systems management.
He said the latter need to begin with a technical background, or platform, to which they add an MBA or MBA equivalent.
“The biggest issues are in the translation process. You need to speak the language of the business,” he said.
This knowledge is crucial because many leaders don’t know the systems, or assets, supporting them, and good CIOs value their assets.
“If you were running an oil rig, you would know the life of the assets,” he said. “A company’s most important assets are its people; yet, many leaders don’t understand their value.”
Acknowledging the value of one’s technical staff is why when Salomon Brothers Inc. approached him about being a managing director and CIO, Dramis told them he wouldn’t take the job unless he could make the technology portion of the company a separate entity.
“When you treat technology people like back office people, that’s what you get.,” he said. “By making technology a separate company, the tech people could be treated like front-office employees. By making them front-office employees, you attract more skilled workers.”
Transforming a Life
Dramis was mentoring someone in his architecture group at Salomon Bros. when he learned the man wanted, at the end of his career, to make a presentation to the national science foundation. So, the pair looked out for the credentials needed to do so and Dramis mapped out an incremental plan that could get him to that point.
The plan included becoming a consultant, joining a venture capital group, earning his Ph.D. and becoming a notable scholar, all of which required skills the man didn’t yet have. But the man started by learning to write and make presentations.
Dramis left Salomon and the men lost touch. But four years later, he picked up a magazine and saw among a list of the four hottest technical consultants a photo of his former mentee. Years later, Dramis learned he was lead technical person at a venture group. Years after that, Dramis discovered the man had become a professor and liaison between his university and all government entities.
“As I walked into the office, we celebrated that he was there based on the plan that was put together so many years before,” Dramis said.
If people get only one idea from his keynote address, Dramis hopes it’s that leaders are intervening in people’s lives every day. That intervention can be task- or meaning-focused, but it’s the latter that’s truly consequential and transformative. “The only way to help an employee get more meaning from their tasks is to know the employee’s endgame. Be an end-of-career facilitator, and you’ll get more employee retention.”
Crain's Content Studio originally published this story here for MichiganCIO.