Six Characteristics Of Strategic CIOs


Peter High, Contributor

December 11, 2014

During the course of writing Implementing World Class IT Strategy (Wiley Press, September 2014), I had the great pleasure of speaking with and collaborating with a great number of the best strategic chief information officers in the United States.  Each was a savvy technologist, but there were a variety of other skills that each possessed that seemed to be the key to enabling them to drive strategic change on behalf of the companies that they are a part of.

Consummate Networkers:
In order to facilitate better strategic planning in the enterprise and in IT, the best CIOs are consummate networkers.  They are skilled at establishing strong relationships their own team, the heads of each of the other divisions of the company, the CEO and the board, external partners of various kinds, the company’s customers, and fellow CIOs of other companies. Each of these constituent groups is a source of strategic inspiration.

Great Listeners:
CIOs, like other “chiefs” are increasingly good at communicating, though that was not always the stereotype of the CIO. The best ones are also excellent listeners.  Since IT does not operate in a vacuum, IT must drive the strategic imperatives of the rest of the organization. In order to understand those imperatives, it means asking great questions, and listening thoughtfully to the answers.  In order to be advisers to the rest of the organization, it requires generating good conversations with leaders of every other division of the company. By listening intently, CIOs, who have one of the few roles that cuts across the entire company, may generate ideas of where multiple divisions might collaborate around an opportunity or to solve a challenge together with IT as a result of the insights garnered in these conversations and strategy sessions.  This positions IT well to be the strategic facilitator that it should be. 

Increasingly, as I interviewed executives for Implementing World Class IT Strategy, and asked them for the secrets to their success, the word “empathy” came up often.  Empathy is the domain of the especially strong listeners and naturally follows the prior characteristic. Conversations with colleagues will not always be pleasant. Sometimes they will involve frustrations, challenges, worries, and the like. The IT leader as strategic adviser within the company must take on conversations that allow other leaders to express a variety of sentiments, and the skilled CIO will be a solid adviser no matter the topic. 

Great CIOs hold themselves and their teams accountable to delivering strong results. Those results should be manifested through the use of metrics.  That which gets measured gets done, so it is essential that the CIO measure the performance of people, infrastructure, governance, the health of the relationship with the rest of the organization, and the performance of external vendor partners.

In addition to being accountable for the results, the best CIOs also are transparent in sharing those results with the rest of the organization.  The CIO role is among the most complex in the corporate structure. As aforementioned, IT breathes life into the plans of every other division, so IT must be transparent in how it is prioritizing its activities. In increasing the transparency of the operation, IT can provide incentives for the rest of the organization to be more transparent, as well.  The also-ran CIO will wait for greater transparency from others before providing it him or herself.  The leading CIO will recognize that it in modeling this behavior, IT positions itself as a leader to the rest of the company.

Given the pace of change in IT, which has never been greater, CIOs must remain curious, always investigating new technologies and new processes that might enhance IT’s and the company’s performance.  IT must have an research and development mentality as it thinks about new technologies, and that begins with the CIO.  In my book, I tell the story of Gerry Pennell, the CIO of the London 2012 Olympics. He talks about all of the technologies that were in their infancy or not yet relevant to the plans of the Beijing games that would become essential for the games in London.  The iPhone was roughly a year old in Beijing, and apps were not as pervasive as they would be four years later. Facebook and MySpace were neck-and-neck in terms of number of customers, Twitter was also roughly a year old, and not yet the cultural tour de force it would be.  (Of course, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter were all blocked in China then, and now.)  Cloud computing was in its nascent stages in 2008.  Finally, the iPad would only be introduced between the games.  Had Pennell simply used the game plan from the Beijing games and translated it to London, he would have been an utter failure.  He had reason given the gap of four years (and a natural propensity toward curiosity) to investigate new technologies and methods to leverage.  All CIOs, including those that have quarter-to-quarter demands of public company need to take time to think about how technology changes might be leveraged.  

CIOs should model these behaviors and hire for them in their leadership teams in order to ensure that IT is the strategic contributor it should be.

Peter High is  President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. Peter will provide a free video or teleconference lecture on the book for any team that purchases 30 or more copies of it. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on @WorldClassIT.

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