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The Modern Community Bank CIO - An Agent of Change

Eddie Ho, COO and CIO, Los Alamos National Bank, New Mexico
Eddie Ho, COO and CIO, Los Alamos National Bank, New Mexico

Eddie Ho, COO and CIO, Los Alamos National Bank, New Mexico

A community bank CIO plays a key role in the safety and soundness of bank operations. Gone are the days of closed networks with zero cybersecurity threats and a centralized, brick and mortar banking model. The demand for digital solutions and real-time services is changing the entire industry and the role of the CIO in particular. The pressure to deliver quick solutions and maintain compliance in a highly perception-driven marketplace is relentless. Banking is a tightly regulated industry married to a high adoption rate for the newest technologies.  Compound that risk with non-stop cyber-threats from all directions. Today’s CIO is a highly stressed thousand trick pony, juggling multiple items all day. 

The banking industry has changed more in the last five years than the previous two decades. This has created a dual role for the CIO: the focal point of digital banking transformations and protecting the organizational assets from cyber threats. The cyber-risks, and thereby the need for protecting the digital banking environment, are ever increasing while the complexity of the solution is intensified year after year.  One cannot have innovation without increased risk and the best CIO’s are able to drive the former while simultaneously mitigating the latter.

  The demand for digital solutions and real-time services is changing the entire industry and the role of the CIO in particular  

My first role in community banking was as Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) after moving on from a hi-tech industry and a management consulting firm. Cyber incursion and data breaches were pervasive throughout many industries, even more so in the banking sector. The industry was in chaos due to a dearth of cybersecurity skills by staff and lack of enterprise standards industry-wide.  This paradigm shift required to safeguard the industry created opportunities as a CISO and CIO to turnaround unsafe institutions. I was able to strengthen my leadership skills and deepen the bench of my working knowledge and toolset.  Each turnaround allows me to test my wisdom and stamina,  integrity and drive, involvement and timing, perfect leading through chaos while remaining calm, how to identify the needed game changer and navigate through rapid industry evolution with safety and soundness.

Therefore, today’s CIO must have a deep bench in cybersecurity, risk management, team building, vendor management, budgeting, and business technology in order to build a vibrant, sustainable organization.

The Successful CIO

CIO leadership is critical during periods of new growth in order to maintain a strong cyber defense posture, enable regulatory changes, and deliver new products and services. A high-performance team normally takes two to four years to establish due to staffing model changes, building up the necessary skillsets, and implementing industry standards and a framework. It is important to network with peers locally and across the industry to maintain the practicality of solution sets. Staying on top of the CIO game via public speaking engagements, published articles, and participating in industry panels is essential.

Below are some key attributes of a strategic, highly adaptable, and transformative CIO:

• People-oriented – you’ve heard of the concept People/Process/Technology.  There is a reason ‘People’ come first.  They are literally the DNA of an organization and if the CIO is not people-oriented then all of the technology-driven solutions will fail. Continuous fine-tuning of putting the right people in the right job to maximize production and solutions. Mentoring plays a critical role in glooming future leaders in your organization. A high performance IT shops requires successful management of human capital.

• Technically savvy – purposefully put after people in this list, but not forgotten, of course.  For all the other skills a CIO must bring to the table, the defining characteristic from other C level positions is extensive knowledge of business technology.   The role of CIO is highly specialized with wide-ranging business knowledge including accounting, risk management, and operations in general. Without this knowledge, risk-mitigation and innovation fall flat.  Therefore, the average tenure of a CIO is 1.5 year for good reason. Business performance is too critical and cannot survive without a well-rounded CIO.

• Problem Solving Methodology – A CIO has built up a career’s worth of problem-solving tools.  With each new problem solved, a new tool gained.  It’s a step-by-step, block-by-block process that builds on all the previous experiences and solutions. The complexity of each solution can be based on life-long experience such as broken promises from vendors, industry over-hype, and learned best practices.

• Risk Taker – innovation is inherently risky.  Managing risk is never-ending. There are going to be many unknowns, but a good CIO will have to forego the safe, well-defined path in order to steer the I/T department and, thanks to the increased roles and responsibility of the modern CIO, the organization into a future state that is both safer and more sustainable than before. Technology is continually changing and the business needs to do the same. A successful, risk-taking CIO can achieve the company objective quickly and safely.

• Leadership - Strong CIO leadership and partnering at the Board level is necessary to ensure alignment with business directives and achieve buy-in at the management level. Communication up and down is vital to sustain continuous alignment through both good and bad situations. I have conducted many town-halls and skip levels to ensure a healthy team environment.

The journey to a CIO position is rarely traditional and never planned right out of college. Working in an I/T shop has many ups and downs, successes and failures, which are all building block to a future CIO position. A modern, successful CIO is a blend of the above attributes paired with the drive to affect real change within a community bank.  The leap from CISO to CIO is a natural one, but complacency cannot be a part of the thinking.  As the cyber threats and business challenges continue to evolve, so to must the modern CIO.   Community banks are being built around their I/T department and digital solutions.  It is essential that the CIO is up to the task and be the agent of change at all times.

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