Ideas for Leaders #069

Chief Information Officers: Secrets to Success

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Key Concept

A valuable learning tool for CIOs, this Idea draws upon the successes and experiences of 14 extraordinary Chief Information Officers from organizations including FedEx, Cisco, Time Warner and the US Department of Defence. Cross-referencing both personal characteristics and environmental factors universal to all 14 we can define and determine the skills needed to excel in this role.

Idea Summary

What is it exactly that makes a Chief Information Officer (CIO) successful? Setting out to examine the factors that determine growth and acceleration in a CIO’s career, the authors of the white paper referenced here looked at both the personal characteristics of 14 CIOs, and the environmental factors that enabled them to seize and achieve opportunities for enduring success. At some point during their research, the term ‘Renaissance CIOs’ was coined to describe the list of candidates chosen, which included representatives from FedEx, Cisco, Time Warner, Merrill-Lynch and the US Department of Defence. Each had a special accomplishment in the form of a major project attributed to them during the course of their career; moreover, “every one of those projects was customer-facing.”

Focused interviews were conducted using a set of twelve open-ended conversation provoking questions, such as “what are the 2–3 things that are most important to you in your life—both professionally and otherwise?” At the conclusion of each interview, an unannounced 13th question was added: “what next?”

The results are divided into two sections: surface results and the common denominators of extraordinary success. Looking at the surface results first, there were a number of notable findings:

  • Most of the Renaissance CIOs achieved their first major success in mid-career, between the ages of 36 and 48;
  • There was strong and consistent evidence suggesting that all of the Renaissance CIOs were ‘lifelong learners,’ even though there was no clear correlation between an extensive education and career success;
  • Almost all of the Renaissance CIOs recalled their parents as strong supporters of education and of a strong work ethic, exemplified by their actions. Most also had meaningful part-time jobs in their youth;
  • All displayed an ability to recognize obstacles and to take related risks. Similarly, recognized opportunities and how to take related actions in a timely, well-considered manner.

Looking at the common denominators of extraordinary success it becomes clear that all of the CIOs possessed the following ‘soft’ attributes, in varying but generally large measure:

  • an integrative mind (the ability to see and connect the dots);
  • focus and vision;
  • a trusting and trustworthy nature;
  • an extensive network of friends, mentors, and protégés;
  • emotional intelligence; and
  • leadership (in contrast to management) skills and an enabling nature

Business Application

Based on these results it is possible to suggest success factors, unique to the role of a CIO. The key is to become an effective, cross-functional team leader and then achieve your vision. Based on the common denominators of extraordinary success, a CIO is well-advised to work towards the following:

  • Learn your employer’s business “inside and out.”
  • Develop your emotional intelligence. Look for creative challenges, opportunities to learn, opportunities to do a job with extraordinary quality, and opportunities to challenge the status quo.
  • Become trusting and trustworthy. Excessive empire-building and corporate politics preclude success. The ability to build effective teams is a crucial skill required of a CIO.
  • Learn from an extensive network of friends, mentors, protégés—an attribute necessary for all C-level executives, not just CIOs.
  • Develop a compelling, achievable vision, beyond your employers’ corporate boundaries.

But the indispensable skill — the sine qua non — for all CIOs is to build highly effective cross-functional teams that go on to achieve extraordinary things often beyond what individual team members might have been able to do. This is what each Renaissance CIO has done, which has positioned them at the top of the CIO profession.

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