We asked successful CIOs and executive recruiters what they think makes a CIO a great leader. Communication, political savvy, and a visionary outlook top the list.
Employers want to know the top ten leadership qualities of successful CIOs—many of them even know those qualities, at least when they see them. But just try to rank those qualities. “They do all kind of play together,” said Steven Dippold, CIO for Teradata, a $1 billion division of NCR, a leader in data warehousing.
“None of these individual characteristics can stand alone,” agreed Croswell Chambers, CIO and vice president of Lexmark.
This is especially true in a changing IT industry where a CIO’s role is very much in flux. TechRepublic decided to give it a try. We contacted CIOs and technical executive recruiting representatives across North America and asked them to identify the leadership qualities of a successful CIO. These are the top ten.
10. Good supply management capability
Successful supply management means working with folks outside the company, particularly service and product vendors, who may not have your company’s best interest at heart. “I think it’s imperative that you be able to manage service providers effectively,” explained Dippold.
This can be very tricky. The recent trend has been to bleed investment from IT, delay upgrades, and hope equipment and software on hand will last just a little longer. Keeping those vendors waiting while making greater demands for support and service can be very difficult. It can also make all the difference in how comfortably a company weathers the delay as it waits for those elusive better times.
9. A solid understanding of financials
Having to understand a company’s financial climate is a dramatic shift away from the “back office” days—only a few years ago—when CIOs limited their involvement to their department. What they did and achieved was something of a business mystery and other C-level executives were quite happy for it to remain so.
Those days have passed, said Chambers. “Now we are expected to know more about the business and to have business management skills,” Chambers said. “We’ve moved from the back office to the front office.”
Even more, the CIO must be able explain how the IT department can not only pay for itself but also turn a profit, said Marc Lewis, president of the North American division of Morgan Howard, a global technology executive search company. “The great CIO is one who learns how to turn a cost center into a successful profit center or subsidiary business,” Howard said. “It’s a matter of taking 1 and 1 and making it equal 3. You have a business suddenly able to not only meet its objectives but also to add profit to the company’s bottom line.”
8. Ability to think strategically to support the business’s goals and objectives
Without exception, everyone whom TechRepublic contacted for this article stressed the importance of a CIO’s ability to think strategically and use IT to reach company goals and objectives. “My role is to ensure that I bring technical services and solutions to meet the business’s needs and to help my company meet its goals and objectives,” said Chambers.
Doing this not only helps the company, it also positions IT to be an important player in moving the company forward. “It allows you to establish credibility,” explained Dippold. It also shows that the IT department can offer proactive solutions. “You can be very knowledgeable about what’s going on in the [IT] industry,” Chambers said. “You can have the vision to see where the business is going. But where we get paid is making it relevant to the company’s initiatives.”
7. Managing expectations effectively
As mentioned, a good CIO will be able to do internal marketing of IT’s ability to help a company reach its goals and objectives. What the great CIO does is sell IT but not oversell it. “Many CIOs already understand the importance of internal selling skills,” Lewis said.
“But if all you do is sell, sell, sell, and then you can’t back up what you sell, you will drown in the bottom quartile. That’s not a good place to be.”
One of the best ways to not oversell IT is to have a team that can think on its feet and develop company solutions and strategies. “A good CIO inspires his team to provide a viable solution to every problem,” saidAlvaro Holguin, CIO for Telvista’s Tijuana, Mexico division. “By constantly challenging team members with high expectations, they know and understand what is expected of them, which helps them focus on meeting deadlines and project requirements.”
6. Tech savvy
It’s possible for a department of tech pros to be managed by a person who isn't technically inclined. However, being technically savvy usually helps a CIO stand out as one of the greats. “A great CIO needs to have command of the technical field,” Chambers said. “That doesn’t mean he has to know everything about technology. He does need to know his field and how to leverage those technologies to help move the company forward.”
There is also a distinction between a CIO and CTO, but it's more than a little blurred in some organizations, Bill Hicks, CIO for Precision Response Corporation, pointed out. In general, a CIO handles the business end of IT while the CTO handles the tech end. However, in many companies, the CIO and CTO now are expected to handle both areas. In fact, some companies have a CIO but no CTO, or vice versa. Carrying out both roles successfully doesn’t come naturally, Hicks said. “I think you have to consciously think about that,” he explained. “You have to make that balance so you’ll be sure to bring the best value to the company.”
5. Selecting a good team
While a CIO should possess technical skills, any ability he or she lacks could be recouped through the talent on his or her team. Choosing the best people for that team is a skill. “As the CIO, I don’t always have the answer for everything,” said Holguin. “But by working together to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, the team will always find the best solution.”
Building a good team also helps a CIO position IT to help a company achieve its goals and objectives. “You need the right organizational structure to take you there,” Chambers said.
Building that structure isn’t enough. Once it’s in place, a good CIO will manage it and an important step in that direction is listening. “Empower your team members by listening to what they have to say,” Holguin said. “Their opinions matter too.”
A good CIO will also need to delegate authority, “but do so responsibly,” and be ready to understand the occasional mistake, Holguin said. “Instead of criticizing mistakes, work with team members to evaluate and learn from them,” he explained. “At Telvista, we encourage ingenuity and try to make our team members understand that people who never make mistakes are the same ones who never try to succeed in the first place.”
There is one sure way to kill a good team: playing team members off each other. “Don’t create an internal atmosphere of competition between team members, as this can limit creativity and inhibit progress,” Holguin cautioned. “At Telvista, we don’t compete; rather, we combine our efforts and resources in order to focus on creating effective solutions.”
4. Ability to rally the troops
Being a strong motivator can help build a strong team. “Think of yourself as a motivator for everyone on the team, so that they give their best effort for both themselves and the team,” Holguin said.
Often, this is as simple as CIOs expecting as much from their team as themselves. “Having the drive to achieve, from a leadership perspective, to be able to set high expectations around a goal,” Chambers said. “You must be able to motivate an organization to achieve those goals.”
The driving need to succeed is important but should not be achieved at the expense of good management, cautioned Hicks. “If you don’t have good management skills, you won’t survive,” he said. “In fact, if you don’t have good management skills, you shouldn’t have made it into this position.”
3. Visionary outlook
It’s at this point that the CIO may seem to leave the realm of strong, conservative business strategy and enter that of the spiritual. However, a CIO must be very forward-thinking and be able to see the company not only moving forward but already there. “He has to be able to look beyond where we are today, know where the business is going, and be able to use that vision to move the company forward,” Chambers said. Being able to do this is a rare skill indeed. “Not just anyone can take their intellectual knowledge and talent and be able to achieve and implement that vision,” he said.
Being a visionary isn’t easily taught. A CIO with this quality will be able to see where the company is headed, position the IT department to help get the company there, build and promote a strong team to head in that direction, and motivate his or her team and company to reach that goal as quickly as possible.
2. Politically savvy without being political
Most of the CIOs with whom TechRepublic spoke either declined to openly discuss this quality or approached it with caution. And well they should. It is one thing to discuss, conceptually, where a company is headed and how IT can be used to get it there. It’s quite another to recognize office politics that will be involved along the way.
Corporate politics can be an obstacle or an asset. A great CIO will strike a delicate balance between building alliances and—either because of them or in spite of them—making good business decisions. “It means listening to your colleagues without being selfish,” Lewis said. “That’s not to say everything has to be altruistic. But there does come a time when you have to help make decisions that are good for the company, not just a matter of self-preservation....Self-preservation is doomed to backfire, while doing the right thing will tend to establish credibility and integrity and lead to the promotions his or her team deserves.”
1. Skilled communicator
Most of those who talked to TechRepublic for this article agreed that a CIO’s ability to communicate within the department and company decidedly takes first position. “To me, this is paramount,” Hicks said. “Communication is key to being a great CIO.”
The reason for this is simple: CIOs can possess the other nine leadership qualities but if they cannot communicate well, they will never be great CIOs.
One of the signs of a CIO with excellent communications skills is the ability to talk technology fluently among peers and yet be an equally skilled translator among the less technically savvy. “If I talk too much technology, then I don’t sell IT very well, do I?” Hicks said. “I can’t go to the CFO and talk like a tech.”
What he can do is communicate with others in the organization about what IT can do to move the company forward. In other words, good communication is key to developing good business relationships. “If you can’t establish a good business working relationship, you are not gong to be that leader, that team player.” Dippold said. “You will not be able to communicate how IT can add long-term value to the company.”