Getting Leadership Buy-in on Digital Transformation: Strategies from the Former Air Force CIO

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3 steps CIOs can take to gain project support from leadership.

Government agencies have IT priorities that are influenced by geopolitical and domestic developments, driven by budget cycles and set a year or more in advance. 

But what happens when an issue arises that isn’t accounted for in the strategy, budget or program plan? Sometimes an IT leader is confronted with a burning platform, an end-of-life system whose failure to perform could create significant impacts.

It is against that backdrop that I offer my insights into how to win and maintain senior leadership buy-in for digital transformation programs. As the former CIO of the U.S. Air Force and chief of war fighting integration, I oversaw a budget of $8 billion and 30,000 IT personnel. Our team was focused on delivering the Air Force’s mission, to “Fly, Fight and Win.”

CIOs rise through the ranks and win their roles because of their expertise. They are adept at aligning technology strategies to business goals or agency missions and evolving networks, systems and processes to meet emerging requirements. However, they won’t flourish in their roles and become valued partners to the rest of the C-suite unless they can build trust and support. Here are three steps they can take to accomplish this important goal. 

Speak in business terms about IT risks 

Many CIOs understand the business they are serving but fall prey to a condition I call speaking techno-geekery—a term I learned from a Royal Australian Air Force general. CIOs use technical terms like data modernization, COBOL, assembly language and cloud agility with their business counterparts.  

This type of language often frustrates business leaders. My boss, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, was responsible for delivering the agency’s mission. As a result, I needed to share how my proposed strategies, priorities and initiatives laddered up to accomplish this mission, and do so without the use of techno-geekery. This approach builds trust through understanding and senior leaders’ confidence that the CIO is working towards the organization’s same aim. 

As an example, when I realized two core Air Force systems were at the end of their life, I used the same approach to communicate the risks of maintaining the status quo and the need to modernize the platform.  

I told the secretary that we had two aging databases that would prevent the conduct of a promotion board in accordance with the law. I shared the scope of the problem, which was that it affected 20,000 records on military and civilian education credentials that leaders need to promote 9,000 Air Force personnel eight months from now. I also said that failing to solve this issue could open the U.S. Air Force to lawsuits, if the agency didn’t use both sets of data to consistently and fairly evaluate our talent.

That got the secretary’s attention. Being able to speak about business problems clearly and simply will always be compelling to leaders. 

Go beyond identifying problems—present solutions and associated costs to leaders 

Having identified a strategic problem, CIOs need to be able to propose a solution and budget, defending the recommended approach against other options and demonstrating the value of the suggested solution. 

With the end-of-life platform, I proposed a clear plan that included the type of solution partner we would need, the budget and where the money would come from. As a result, the secretary approved the project directly. 

One of the secrets to this success was having routine meetings with the secretary, which I ensured never lasted more than 30 minutes. By being efficient with my time and clear about the path forward, I guaranteed that the secretary would always make time for our discussions. 

Fewer, focused, non-technical words that highlight action and business impact will win a senior leader over most of the time.

Accurately assess in-house technical capabilities and outsource when they’re not available

CIOs need to know their organization’s strengths and work with partners when they’re lacking critical capabilities or have to deliver transformation at pace. 

U.S. government agencies typically don’t have the capability to write thousands or millions of lines of software code. However, that doesn’t matter, because the technology industry has so many exceptional experts and solutions, and the pace of innovation is accelerating. In addition, most agencies have flexible contracts that help leaders acquire innovative solutions quickly. 

After advertising an RFP to modernize our application, I received many inquiries from companies that built U.S. Air Force hardware and were now pivoting into the world of IT. I also heard from a California-based company, EvolveWare. The company had really interesting ideas and technology that could automate the processes involved in modernizing applications, such as generating application documentation, extracting business rules, and converting code to a modern language. Being able to communicate directly with EvolveWare’s CEO, Miten Marfatia, was a key consideration in awarding the company the job, as was the company’s experience modernizing applications for government agencies and the flexibility to adapt their process to our needs. 

My team and I felt confident that EvolveWare could do the job, given that application modernization is a core competency, and the company had the team and tools in place to do the job quickly. 

Our faith in EvolveWare was well-placed because they modernized the application and delivered it in record time to comply with our deadline. The promotion event went off flawlessly, enabling us to recognize emerging leaders; preserve workforce morale; and continue developing our flying, fighting and winning Air Force. 

I recommend that CIOs use this example, looking beyond brand names and partnering with firms that are truly expert in the capabilities needed and are fully invested in your success. 

U.S. government agencies need to transform applications to continue delivering on their mission. Many agencies run software that’s 10 to 60 years old. The risk of burning platforms like the one I encountered at the Air Force is real and growing. In the recent past, we’ve witnessed issues such as the IRS being unable to process tax returns in time and a Federal Aviation Administration computer glitch that grounded aircraft. A major infrastructure failure that compromises essential services or national security is a looming threat. 

CIOs can follow these three steps to build trust with senior executives and gain the sponsorship and budget for IT transformation initiatives the U.S. government needs. With partner support, they can successfully modernize applications, gain new capabilities and deliver on their mission.

Lt. General William (Bill) T. Lord is the former CIO of the U.S. Air Force.