The main theme at this year’s Midsize Enterprise Summit Spring conference focused on leadership and culture

The IT executives who assembled at one of the nation’s largest midmarket conferences left little doubt as to what was on their minds: the evolving role of the CIO.

The keynotes on the main stage, conversations in the boardrooms and whispers in the hallways were all about the changing role of the midmarket IT leader and the wide-ranging impact of that change on suppliers, customers, employees, business leaders and partners. That theme dominated the recent Midsize Enterprise Summit with many saying the technology spend and management of IT at midmarket companies has been forever altered.

Perhaps Charlies Araujo, who runs the Institute for Digital Transformation, captured the essence of the moment when he told the audience it is time to “reset, reimagine and reinvent ourselves.” Truth be told, many in the audience may have felt those words are cliché but they suddenly had a deeper meaning. Araujo pointed out during his keynote that CIOs and IT leaders are caught up in a larger transformation of work that is taking place globally. What made everyone feel uncomfortable was his comment that “we have all been trained for the wrong future.” Thus, the reason IT leaders must focus on new skills to improve their technical and managerial capabilities.

For his part, Gartner Vice President Michael Cisek offered several sobering observations for how midmarket CIOs must create sustainable cultures of innovation to increase their influence. Cisek encouraged senior IT leaders to be more firm and realistic with their teams to better manage expectations and create urgency. Cisek discussed his five truths about organizational culture including his theory that “leadership is the linchpin in creating a successful culture.” Today’s IT leader must create a culture that is open, dynamic and curated by empathetic managers, he said. He also entertained the audience with relevant quotes about management from the movies The Godfather, Goodfellas and A Bronx Tale. He had everyone’s ear when he demonstrated how a good culture can improve productivity.

Another MES keynoter, Shannon Huffman Polson, who served in both the U.S. Army and in corporate America, said she learned that being a leader has nothing to do with rank, title or number of direct reports. That perhaps captures the predicament for many midmarket IT leaders who are trying to exert more influence in their organizations to remain relevant as more line of business managers direct tech spending.

Polson offered this advice to those who aspire to be better leaders, “Before a leader is ready to lead other people, she has to lead herself and own her own story. Define your own story and take control of your own narrative,” said the retired U.S. Army Captain, one of the first women to lead an Apache helicopter platoon. She also told senior IT leaders to roll up their sleeves and work in the trenches with their team. “No one trusts a solider whose boots are too shiny and not dirty,” she said.

Kevin Eastman, a championship NBA coach turned author and speaker on team building and leadership, told the hundreds of CIOs assembled to think of how their teammates would describe them. He asked everyone to imagine what their co-workers would write in a blank name plate on the CIO’s door. The exercise had a few attendees chuckling, but Eastman stressed that words such as appreciation and values, humility and vulnerability is what everyone should aspire.

There is no doubt, the narrative among CIOs and IT leaders has significantly changed in the past two years. Where they were once fighting for relevance as other business leaders from marketing or sales were usurping their tech influence, they now realize a renewed focus on leadership and culture can help them succeed.