CXO

What qualities are key for a successful CIO?

There are plenty of how-to books on leadership, but the best insight often comes from those leading the IT charge. Find out what CIOs and TechRepublic members told columnist Bob Weinstein about key IT leadership qualities.


There are plenty of books and articles published on what it takes to be a great leader. But the best insight and the most valuable advice usually come from those who take up the leadership mantle each day, which for the IT industry is the CIO.

“A great CIO needs to be part General Patton, part Gandhi, and part Bill Clinton,” asserted Thomas Sobczak, Jr., director of information systems and technology at The New York Academy of Medicine. Sobczak believes that the following qualities of those three men can prove extremely useful to today's leaders:
  • Patton: Leadership, focus, and attention
  • Gandhi: Patience, flexibility, and wisdom
  • Clinton: Charisma, inclusiveness, and bridge-building skills

But according to Sobczak, the key to wielding these skills wisely is in the balance, because "too much of one and not enough of another may make a CIO seem weak, indecisive, and/or stubborn.”

For this article, I sought the advice and insight of TechRepublic members as well as industry experts on which leadership qualities make for a great CIO. Here's what they had to impart.

Getting down to business
One trap that many CIOs fall into is concentrating too heavily on technology and too little on business concerns. A CIO must be comfortable in both camps and must be able to communicate that at the conference table.

“You need to talk business and strategy with the executives and the board, common sense to the bankers/ investors, and technology with your staff," stressed Gregory W. Coan, CIO of Textainer Equipment Management in San Francisco. “You need to move seamlessly through these worlds, translating your vision into the appropriate dialect.”

Translating the vision is key to a CIO’s influence and achievements, noted one IT manager.

“A successful CIO must influence the technical direction of the organization and not let one or two techies run the show for them,” said Kim Heldman, applications development manager for the Colorado Department of Revenue. “While they should consider the techie's opinion, the final decision and direction rests with the CIO.”

The CIO’s business aptitude is crucial for today’s companies, said Brian Stern, VP of SHL Group, an HR consulting firm in Cleveland.

“Don’t look for technology as a solution to a business problem, but rather look for business solutions that can be technology-enabled,” advises Stern.

Management role can be tricky
While today’s CIO must possess technology knowledge, the job doesn’t require the same deep expertise that staff members likely have. Managing that dichotomy can be a little tricky, warned Jeff Leon, a partner of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates in New York City, because a CIO can’t afford to lose the respect of his or her staff.

“CIOs must keep current with new technology. That doesn’t mean being able to drill down to the deepest levels of it but understanding its applications and importance to the organization,” Leon explained.

More important is “understanding the limitations of data and how to use technology to turn data into useful information to ultimately harvest knowledge to increase the organization's efficiency and profitability,” added Beatrice Block, senior manager of IT security and assurance for Fleet Securities in Boston.

Along with having the right mix of tech and management skills, CIOs need to be strong individuals who are confident, incisive, and aggressive, said Jody Harris, CIO of Camelot Healthcare, LLC, in Rayne, LA.

“They need huge egos, yet they must be careful not to step on the egos of others,” she said. According to Leon, “[CIOs] must have the strength of their convictions to question everything and be counterintuitive.”

Essentially, today’s successful CIO is akin to a technology triathlete who must have these top three qualities:
  • Leadership skills
  • Business acumen
  • An understanding of technology

Qualities that can hinder success
While it’s obvious that a lack of the above three qualities likely makes for a poor CIO, there are certain personality and management traits that can sink a CIO altogether and harm an IT department’s productivity and stability.

Harris rates inconsistency and a lack of organization as the most damaging traits, but Chris P. Buri, VP of IT at Experio Solutions in Dallas, has a much longer list of qualities or actions that can doom a CIO:
  • Building technology solutions for technology's sake
  • Kingdom-building
  • Isolationism ("I'm just the tech person.")
  • Negativity
  • Closed-mindedness
  • Lack of flexibility
  • "Inside-the-box" thinking ("We've always done it that way.")

Self-evaluation builds stronger leaders
Career-building CIOs know that they must constantly strive to improve themselves by evaluating their own performance, identifying their weak spots, and working toward improving themselves.

“No matter how busy you are, you have to step back and take stock of your performance and ask yourself what’s working and what’s not working,” SHL’s Stern advises. “Ask for feedback from peers who you trust will give you candid, honest answers,” he added. “You should also create an environment in which your staff feels comfortable enough to question what they consider inequalities or mistakes on your part.”

 

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