Six characteristics of effective CIOs

I had a recent chat with Shvetank Shah, executive director of the Corporate Executive Board's IT practice, about the CEB's study of CIO effectiveness.

The CEB carefully studied 142 CIOs by looking at how the CIOs spend their time, as well as their backgrounds, skills, approaches to business engagement, career ambitions and other factors. So how did CEB determine effectiveness? To identify the "high-performers," the CEB asked CFOs (often the CIO's toughest critic) to give a report card on the CIO and IT function, and used other filters such as the measurement of IT's business value. Only 25% of the CIOs studied were rated as high-performers.

The result of the analysis is six key findings on the "management behaviors of high-performing CIOs." Here I've summarized and paraphrased the findings in my own words.

Six characteristics of effective CIOs

1. They have a background with significant management experience in non-IT business functions.

Because of those other experiences -- in, say, operations or marketing or supply chain -- they understand better what the business is trying to achieve. They approach a topic as a business problem first (not an IT problem first).

Shah says that even CIOs who have come up through the IT ranks can gain similar experiences, such as by managing a cross-functional business team to implement a merger or build a new headquarters.

2. They exploit the opportunities to have informal interactions with other business execs.

It may be counter-intuitive, but Shah says that the high-performing CIOs actually spend less time with senior execs like the CEO than other CIOs do! But the time they spend with those senior execs is quality time, often in informal settings.

The informal interaction could be an early-morning coffee meeting, or joining the CEO on a flight to a far-flung business unit.

We all know that top execs are over-scheduled. So be a "careful steward" of their time and be prepared to use the small increments of face time to your advantage.

3. They know the company's business strategy and learn what drives value.

How? They visit the front lines of the business and see first-hand how technology can help or hinder. This is where the Eureka! moments come.

4. They are clear about their role and have formal objectives -- and yet they also have "a greater appetite for risk" to acheive business goals.

(In another counter-intuitive finding, Shah says CFOs actually would like to see CIOs take on more risk. But risk is defined here as innovation regarding projects, products and people.)

In other words, Shah says the high-performing CIOs have clear, formal objectives and the freedom to be innovative about how they get there. He likens it to a jazz musician who improvises but never loses sight of the melody line.

5. They allocate more time to talent development than to any other activity.

Not project management. Not operational management. Talent management. The high-performing CIOs realize that "IT shops are people shops," Shah says.

6. They learn about company operations in preparation for broader, non-IT opportunities.

Bluntly put, the high-performers aspire to be COO or CEO or have profit-and-loss business responsibilities. Lesser-performers aspire to be CIO at a larger company.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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