BCS’ Adaptive CIO Conference saw prominent IT leaders share practical advice to help new and aspiring leaders. From the event, Martin Cooper MBCS shares the must-watch videos to help you begin and advance your career.

IT leadership was never simple but today, it feels even more complex. As leaders, we need the skills to manage and head-up so many different changes and challenges.

Technology, regulation, compliance, customer expectation and COVID all require IT leaders to keep developing, testing and reshaping their skills.

Gone too are the days of the autocratic and remote leader. Today’s leaders realise the need for compassion and the value of humility. Today’s leaders don’t just direct, they coach, nurture and enable.

To help aspiring leaders develop their leadership skills and help established leaders move their careers forward, the BCS IT Leaders Forum recently hosted an online conference where the above topics were explored.

The BCS IT Leaders Forum represents the most distinguished and influential IT professionals and academics in the industry.

The online conference was called the Adaptive CIO and, as you read on, we’ll share the session’s highlights.

Adaptive CIO conference was based on the findings of BCS’ annual IT Leaders Survey. Each year we poll leaders and ask for their opinions about trends, technologies, pressures, skills and opportunities. The research is made available to BCS members.

As an organisation, BCS is committed to helping everybody in IT develop their digital skills and improve their careers.

1. Types of leadership: Starting and thriving as a leader 

If there’s one constant in the world of IT it’s the need to adapt to change. Three seasoned leaders reflect on their careers and share practical advice and actionable strategies. Here are some key quotes: 

Rebecca George OBE, BCS President: ‘It was a revelation when I worked out that women are different from men. In the workplace, women act differently. If you don’t understand why that is and how that works - both men and women - it is hard to create diverse teams, nurture talent and bring people through. In interviews, doing the job, looking for recognition and negotiating salaries - women do it differently from men. If you understand that, it unlocks a lot...’ 

Suzanne Doyle Morris, author of the Con Job: ‘Why do we value confidence so highly? People come to my sessions and say: “I want more confidence!” Nobody comes and says “I want more competence”. That’s what we should be rewarding... Competence, not confidence. People should be good at their job!’

Suzanne Doyle Morris: ‘In interviews, you’d have two good quality candidates. The woman would say: “I’m not so good at this... I could use some work on that...” The guy, who had the same qualifications, would tell you why he was great, had nothing to [learn] - he’d tell you why he was the best. The only candidate!’

Matt Howarth, Founder, Reason Digital: ‘There are extra benefits for you, as a leader, or if you involve your team, in doing good for the community... It’s great for staff engagement and wellbeing. Prioritising social good is a great thing to do this year.’

2. Qualities of a good leader: Dealing with the next unknown

Have you pre-empted your next unknown? In the wake of COVID-19, we explore how business continuity has been affected and why planning is critical for future business resilience.

The session is presented by John Higgins CBE FBCS, Deputy President of BCS.

Key topics include:

  • The need to understand whether you, as a leader, are at the helm of a business which is surviving or prospering. And, if you’re in the latter camp, what to do about it.
  • The importance of ‘soft skills’ for leaders.
  • How businesses can place too much emphasis on technology and not enough on their customers’ needs.
  • The importance of ‘having the right people on the bus’ - having the right people with the correct skills doing the best job at the correct time.

Higgins said: ‘When I worked at Ladbrokes, I learned a lot about betting. In business, we have to make bets.’ Leaders who use judgement - based on reading and research - are however more likely to succeed.

3. Technical skills: Linking security hygiene and ethics

Geoff White, Author of 'Crime Dot Com', presents a practical application of ethics in a security environment.

Key topics include:

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  • What can the security industry and IT security leaders learn from COVID-19?
  • Why employees, by their nature, care more for their co-workers than their employers and their policies; and how this piece of human nature can be harnessed by organisations looking to engender change and reliance?
  • Homeworking and an employer’s duty of care - how far does liability stretch? (The answer is further than you think...)
  • Is there a relationship between Bitcoin’s relentless rise in perceived value and ransomware’s growing prevalence?

4. Leaderships skills: From the mind of the board

Geoff Hudson-Searle, the author of many books including Purposeful Discussions, gives a straight-talking tour of how boards’ priorities, purpose and processes should be ordered. 

Key recommendations include:

  • Planning is very important for boards. Since COVID-19 we now have to live in a very different reality and operate much more quickly. It’s also worth considering pandemics aren’t new.
  • Strategies need to align with corporate objectives. Everybody must understand their place, their role and their responsibilities and how they align with an organisation's prime objectives. A sense of purpose needs to cascade through your organisation.
  • Boards need to take advice - for good advisors. Particularly when it comes to cyber security. As such, leaders need to listen.
  • Leaders must consider the nature of trust. They must understand it and work towards achieving it. Trust is at the heart of accelerating business success and change. Trust is what binds successful organisations together.
  • We must act to protect and enhance mental health among our teams and co-workers.

5. Qualities of a good leader: Learning the trade

Where can you get the knowledge to become an outstanding digital leader?


  • Rubi Kaur, Senior Solutions Architect, Vodafone
  • Jillian Moore, Global Advisory Practice Lead, Avanade

Key topics include:

  • We now live in a different universe. COVID-19 has accelerated organisations through a huge amount of change. This means IT leaders need to reinvent themselves - they need new skills to keep pace.
  • Moore says: ‘Organisations need only make one change. They must move toward becoming an organisation that changes constantly.’
  • Though COVID-19 has been a dark time, we should reflect on what we’ve learned - and build on those lessons. If we do this we can start to prepare for life after COVID-19.
  • Technically, data and architectural skills are always going to be in demand. Leaders now need to focus on their soft skills and their authenticity.
  • COVID-19 has now made it acceptable to talk about mental health. ‘My laptop works like a shutter which opens and shuts the universe,’ Moore says. This is tough and it affects different people in different ways.
  • Leaders can - indeed must - share vulnerability. Everybody needs to understand that it okay to not be okay and, as such, culture needs to remodel and cascade.

6. Transformational leadership: The secret of project success

Stephen Slough, CIO, NHS Dorset CCG, give a straightforward analysis of why some leaders win and some leaders seem to lose. 

Slough’s advice includes:

  • Success manuals are always pregnant with advice about the importance of the fail and the need to allow people to fail. Though something of a cliché, the advice does hold true: failure is the greatest teacher and, as such, leaders must create an environment where people aren’t frightened to try something new.
  • Positive reflection is paramount. If a project has been delivered ahead of time and under budget celebrate it but also make sure you understand how the successes happened. You can then replicate and refine.
  • Remember people are more important than technology. In the clinical world, projects that are clinically led - as opposed to technically led - are much more likely to succeed.

7. Critical thinking: What keeps CIOs awake at night?

The BCS IT Leaders survey 2021, researched leaders’ priorities for the coming year. We found the following:

  • The priorities for 2021 are operational efficiencies (59%); business transformation and organisational change (55%); and remote and distributed working (48%).
  • When asked to single out their number one priority, the top answer is business transformation and organisational change, selected by 22% of respondents. This is followed by operational efficiencies (15%) and staff engagement and well-being (10%).
  • The technologies that organisations are prioritising for 2021 are cyber security (61%), cloud (also 61%), and business process automation (47%).
  • When asked to identify their top priority, cyber security (18%) edges ahead of cloud (15%). Also with 15% is business process automation closely followed by agile methods (14%).

Our expert round table discussion was hosted by:

  • Eileen Jennings-Brown, Head of Tech, Wellcome Trust
  • Rob Harding, Chief Operations and Technology Officer, Capital One

Speaking specifically about security, they felt that different organisations were at different stages of evolving their security. And evolving seems to be a good word. COVID-19 saw whole workforces move from fire-walled offices to home working and this, in some cases overnight, expanded organisations’ attack surfaces.

Jennings-Brown said: ‘Some [businesses] are just starting, some are transforming and some are just realising the risks. A story of transition.’ She points to the hybrid cloud as a particular point of both needed and ongoing security-in-transition.

Managing security across a hybrid cloud - in a place of constant transition. And as technology changes so businesses need to evolve their training. 

‘There is a need for a level of technology literacy,’ she said. That’s a big part of solving this in the future. So many of the roles that used to be done by the IT department are now done elsewhere in the business.’

The BCS IT Leaders’ Report found that many organisations felt they needed more resources to achieve their objectives.

To help here, Harding recommended: ‘My go-to place on this, is prioritisation and applying a level of commercial mindedness. Do we need to do this work? When you shift from waterfall to agile, the old way of working was to build big business cases before you launch the project. Not a lot got into the pipeline unless it had been scrutinised.’ Today, he says, its worth asking yourself: ‘Are your teams working on the highest priority?’