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Seven Leadership Skills CIOs Need to Drive Results

CIOs must have the right leadership skills in place to deliver on today's heightened expectations.

Like most folks in the media, I see lots of surveys. The relevance and quality of methodology vary widely. And I do mean widely. Some have valuable information, but you have to dig to get to the point because a vendor who sponsored the survey buries the good stuff under a product pitch. Some feature great data and present it well. And some are just pointless.

So I understand the visceral reaction InfoWorld's Bob Lewis had to a Deloitte survey about the changing role of the CIO. He objects to the survey's categorization of CIOs as "stewards," "strategists" or "revolutionaries." As he writes:

... The reality is that competent CIOs have always been both stewards and strategists. And to be "revolutionary," successful CIOs will simply need to continue to provide the same technology leadership they've been offering all along.

IT Business Edge contributor Mike Vizard had a similar reaction to an IBM survey back in 2009, calling it "patronizing" in its effort to classify CIOs using terms such as "insightful visionaries" and "able pragmatists." Vizard wrote:

You can’t help but wonder if the report is deliberately designed to try to play to some supposed inferiority complex of the CIO. The simple fact is that a CIO has to be both an innovative business leader and first-rate technologist. In some cases, those functions may be split across multiple people. So in instance where a CIO is classified as an insightful visionary, chances are really good that the CIO is backed up by one or more able pragmatists. ...

Still, I think these kinds of surveys do indicate something about how folks perceive CIOs, and by extension IT. The Deloitte survey notes that 60 percent of respondents think IT should facilitate growth and productivity, while 36 percent believe IT needs to be a competitive advantage. As Lewis' InfoWorld colleague Dan Tynan writes in a separate piece about the survey, the majority of respondents were IT executives at the director or VP level. Is it a little troubling that the number of them who see IT as a productivity driver outnumbers those who see IT as a competitive advantage?

It's not clear if they were given the option to select more than one response. But the productivity answer implies a troubling tendency to see the CIO role as someone who figures out how to make it easier for employees to do their jobs rather than someone who partners with business colleagues on customer-facing initiatives that can create revenue opportunities. As I wrote earlier this month, successful CIOs must serve both internal and external customers.

Tynan quotes Suketu Gandhi, one of two Deloitte principals who compiled the survey, as saying that while strategic CIOs identify problems and determine a technological solution to resolve them, revolutionary CIOs identify ways to employ technology to create new revenue streams or new ways to deliver services. Gandhi offers the example of a strategic CIO who determines that using electronic receipts will save his company money. A revolutionary CIO will figure out a way to tie the receipts into the company's customer loyalty program, use that data to analyze their buying behavior and then create marketing programs to capitalize on that knowledge.

Vizard wrote about a more recent IBM survey in May in which Big Blue asked 3,000-plus CIOs to describe their primary responsibilities, using one of four categories. The largest group, 51 percent, said their top mandate was to refine business processes and enhance collaboration. Again, this implies a mostly internal focus.

Twenty-three percent said changing the industry value chain through improved relationships was their top mandate. The numbers were far lower for streamlining operations and increasing organizational effectiveness, mentioned by 14 percent, and radically innovating products, markets and business models, named by 13 percent.

This might just indicate that CIOs are not big fans of extremes. But I think it shows a clear desire to work more closely with business colleagues and other partners. Those kinds of partnerships might not result in "radical" innovation, but they will likely yield improvements and ideas that could translate into new products or services.

One thing that nearly everyone can appear to agree upon is the need for CIOs to take technology beyond a traditional focus on infrastructure. Back in March I wrote a post on the importance of CIOs delivering business value, citing a Constellation Research report that mentioned four personas CIOs will need to master:

  • Chief infrastructure officer, a technology-centric persona focused on cutting costs and managing legacy systems. (This seems like a "steward" to me.)
  • Chief integration officer, a persona that brings together various business processes, data, systems, legacy systems and newer cloud-based approaches. (Combination of steward and strategist.)
  • Chief intelligence officer, a persona that involves improving business user access to relevant information. (Again, a combination but perhaps more focused on strategy than the chief intelligence officer.)
  • Chief innovation officer, focused on delivering innovation at a low cost. (I guess this would be the revolutionary?)

According to Constellation Research's Ray Wang, the innovation officer will be the toughest for many CIOs to adopt because it "requires a good understanding of the business strategy as well as keeping up to date with a large amount of disruptive technology." I expect most technology executives see the CIO role as more evolutionary than revolutionary, and use the skills they feel are required to get the job done. That job can vary greatly, based on the needs of an employer.

Last spring I cited an interesting post from CIO Dashboard blogger Chris Curran, in which he wrote that CIOs tend to stay with the same organization as long as their skill sets mesh well with the organization's overall developmental goals. Curran said CIOs tend to fall under three categories: strategists, known for their innovative, often disruptive thinking; transformers, who are comfortable directing large portfolios of projects, both strategic and tactical; and value managers, who tend to focus on optimizing processes and platforms to improve IT efficiency and effectiveness.