Breaking the CIO Mold

Rajeev Seoni
Chief Information Officer of EY India

Breaking the CIO Mold

Rajeev Seoni
Chief Information Officer of EY India

I f you ever meet Rajeev Seoni, the first thing that’d probably strike you is that almost everything about him is atypical.

For starters, he is open, honest, and genuine, which is so rare to find in the corporate world. And he minces no words to tell you what he truly believes—even if it defies convention.

As the CIO of EY India (formerly Ernst & Young), one of the big four accounting and advisory firms in the world, Seoni has never really believed in strategizing too much.

Trace his career graph and you’ll know how it has veered off the conformist path several times over. An alumnus of IIT-BHU Varanasi, Seoni served a long stint in the Indian Navy and retired as a Commander after over two decades of service. He joined what can be termed a semi-government organization, the Delhi Stock Exchange, as GM-Information Systems, driving the implementation of the on-line trading system.

And then Seoni took another turn and headed to the private sector as CIO of HCL Infosystems followed by Hughes Software Systems (now Aricent). True to his nature, after spending close to 15 years in the IT sector, Seoni did the unexpected once again and jumped industries to make the move to EY in April 2007.

Ask him why he chose this meandering road, and he’d say, very much unlike a CIO: “To be frank with you, I’m not really choosing and strategizing too much at all. You take life as it comes. When an opportunity presents itself, you have to evaluate between what you’re doing and the new opportunity. So, I really never strategized,” he says.

That’s coming from someone who designed warships and crafted the first ever software maintenance policy in the Indian Navy, which demand intense strategizing. And then he tells you how while serving the Navy, he also got an MBA in Marketing and Finance from IGNOU, and you’d know why he says he’s less about strategy and more about following his heart.

In a candid conversation, Seoni breaks some CIO myths and talks about the lessons he learnt in the Navy that shaped him to become a better CIO, and why not every CIO wants to be a CEO.

Lessons from the Trenches

The armed forces is not a place for the faint-hearted. And no one better than a sailor to tell you how hard it can really get. It challenges endurance and rewards army men and women with invaluable lessons that seep into their corporate lives.

Seoni’s story is no different. The Navy brought him face-to-face with remarkable everyday challenges.

In remote and extreme conditions, like a ship or a submarine, the IT team is the be-all and end-all. Quite obviously, Seoni’s team was responsible for everything from power generation to communication equipment, to weapons control systems, and radars. “We had to do everything. And at any given point, the technology that you are working with was the latest in the world. That means, you’ve got to learn fast,” he says.

That’s a lesson Seoni borrowed from the Navy: To keep up with technology and learn as quickly as possible—at a time when the term ‘software’ itself was a grey area.

“I remember drafting the first ever software maintenance policy at a time when there was no such thing as ‘software in weapons’. But then software started coming into weapons systems. And you had to learn quickly,” Seoni says.

And you had to learn equally fast to work as a team. Aboard a submarine, even simple things like routing electric cables can be a complex exercise. How you route a power cable so that it doesn’t entangle with a data cable or a hydraulic and water pipe itself is a mountain to climb. Forget leveraging technology to design weapon systems. Without teamwork and knowledge about technology, that’s not possible.

The armed forces teaches you how to organize work and delegate work. It teaches you how to build a team, and how to make sure that your team is totally working together as a team much better than what you find in the private sector.

It’s between these challenges that, Seoni says, you learn a lot about everything: From technology to teamwork.

It’s these lessons that have shaped his approach to the CIO role and how it stays relevant despite a constantly changing technology landscape.

CIO: Career is Far from Over

A few years ago, in hushed whispers outside a CIO’s cabin, people would say ‘CIO’ stands for ‘Career is Over’, only half in jest.

But today, there’s no position that’s as coveted as the CIO’s. A Forbes survey titled The Ascent of the CIO stated: “The CIO is the most dynamic and fast-rising position in the organization, and this rise in stature has only just begun.”

In the same survey, Craig Stephenson, managing director of the CIO & CTO practice at Korn Ferry, a consulting firm, says, “The [CIO] job is earning a new stature and recognition among peers in senior management.”

That’s a far cry from where CIOs and IT departments were about five or six years ago. A lot of that has got to do with the rising importance of technology and digital transformation.

As someone who has witnessed this transition first-hand, Seoni agrees the tables have turned.

“The CIO role has definitely changed. Earlier, the business leadership decided the business strategy and then we say, okay, what are the tools that we need to support that business strategy. I don’t think that alignment is required anymore because IT is very much a part of that business strategy. There is no need for a separate IT strategy,” he says.

He believes CIOs are in a unique position because they are at the forefront of technological change that’s driving businesses. They understand technology and can gauge how it impacts business. The same can’t be said about CMOs, CFOs, and other department heads who are engrossed in their own departments and therefore aren’t tuned in to what’s happening in the technology space, says Seoni.

Now that CIOs have made their way up the business strategy ladder, are they closer to occupying the CEO throne?

The Road to the CEO Throne

The Forbes survey also stated that 70 percent of CIOs believe technology trends are increasing the chances of a CIO becoming a CEO. While that maybe true, Seoni raises a pertinent question: Do CIOs really want to be CEOs? Maybe not. But if you do want to become a CEO, Seoni will tell you with a straight-face that just technology won’t get you there.

I don’t know whether all CIOs want to become CEOs, right? It’s not necessary that your end goal is a CEO position because you are very happy as a CIO. If your objective is to become a CEO, then I think technology definitely can help you achieve your dreams. But technology alone cannot help you run a business. It can’t help you manage your finance department, for example, or a sales or a marketing department.

To be able to achieve that, Seoni says, CIOs and their teams really need to understand business. For instance, they need to know the 4 Ps of marketing, they need to know the terminologies that sales and finance teams often use. “Today, a lot of terms that are used in sales and other departments may sound Greek to CIOs and their teams. That’s not going to make them effective at all,” says Seoni.

That’s why one advice, he would like to give CIOs is to step out of technology and really get into the veins of business. Seoni says CIOs need to broaden their scope and move out of pure technology. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of people do a lot of technology courses around blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and all that. That’s all fine at a junior level, but once you’ve crossed 15 years of experience, you should really look at the business as a whole. Maybe, you should get an MBA,” he says.

Seoni has made it abundantly clear that the CIO role is far from over and that not every CIO wants to be CEO. But those who do, should make business their business and if they are really serious, get an MBA.

And just like that, in his characteristic style, Seoni will tell you what, perhaps, no one else will.

Rajeev Seoni
Chief Information Officer of EY India

Rajeev Seoni is the CIO of EY India. Prior to his current position, Seoni was CIO of Aricent. A veteran CIO, he is an alumnus of IIT-BHU Varanasi and IIT Kanpur. Seoni also served in the Indian Navy for over 20 years, retiring as a Commander.