The Grill: Larry Bonfante

This CIO coach aims to teach IT professionals how to inspire and lead.

Larry Bonfante, CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association, has shared his insight on what it takes to successfully lead an IT organization, through various speaking engagements, his work with the Society for Information Management and his executive coaching practice, CIO Bench Coach. Bonfante recently added one more outlet to the list: He published his first book, Lessons in IT Transformation: Technology Expert to Business Leader, in April. For the past 29 years, Bonfante has held executive leadership positions in various fields, including the financial, pharmaceutical and nonprofit sectors. He was also one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders in 2009.

You've certainly been a visible CIO, and you've already shared your thoughts publicly. Why write a book? This is my second year doing executive coaching, and it's become obvious to me that there's a pressing need for leadership development for CIOs and aspiring CIOs. I learned [to be a CIO] the hard way -- by making mistakes and picking myself up and dusting myself off -- but there doesn't seem to be a lot of that kind of information out there. So there's a need for it, and I have a desire to share with people so they don't make the same mistakes. The easiest way for me to capture a broad audience was in a book.

What are the most common mistakes that IT leaders make? A lot of IT leaders are very effective managers of projects and technology. They've got that skill set, but they don't necessarily have the human dynamics, such as inspiring people with a compelling vision, communication skills, marketing skills, the ability to effectively partner with their C-level colleagues, developing their people -- all the human things so critical for success in the 21st century. Many CIOs come from the IT ranks, where there's an emphasis on hard skills, but the human element doesn't come naturally to them.

What do you mean by the "human side of IT leadership"? Working with people to develop a shared vision, working with your counterparts in the organization to drive business value, being an effective communicator, being an effective marketer, being an effective relationship manager, working to develop human capital to make sure they're growing professionally, partnering with other professionals. These characteristics aren't intuitive. It's not something that most people are adept at out of the gate.

Your book looks at the difference between leadership and management. How do they differ? To me, they're very different sets of muscles, very different skill sets. Leadership is about where we're going, setting a direction so people understand where they're going. And leadership helps answer why we're going there. There's probably a dozen destinations an organization could go to, so why is it you've chosen that one? Management is how I get there -- how do we get from Point A to Point B? So one is about vision; the other is about execution.

Do IT leaders need skills that other executives don't have to have? I think that all C-level executives need to have the skills that I outline in the book, but there is one skill that CIOs need to call on more than some of the others, and that is to effectively market internally. People understand what the chief marketing officer does and what the chief financial officer does, but people understand less what technology does and the criticality of technology in driving business results. So if you're not an effective marketer, you lose the ability to get what you need.

You've also talked about how to inspire people. How do CIOs go about that? How do you go about that? I think there are two things. Most people think inspiration is about having a force of charisma, and that's what draws inspiration. But for me, it's less about your personal charisma and more about being able to inspire people about what the organization is trying to accomplish, getting them excited about what the organization is trying to accomplish, and linking that to their day-in, day-out tasks. And getting to know what matters to their people. It's not about what gets me excited but about what gets you excited, and if I can tap into that, so what gets you excited is available for you to do, that's what gets people inspired.

What are some of the biggest ongoing challenges in your own CIO position? There are so many things that you could do, but you need to be focusing on the few things that really matter and putting your time and energy into the things that matter most. So the biggest challenge is focusing your resources on what will truly matter for the organization.

What does the future hold for CIOs in general? I think you're going to see the CIO position go in two directions. Those who focus on only being technology providers, their roles will be marginalized, assumed within the business or go away altogether. However, if you are working to truly drive business value, to act as a trusted adviser to the rest of the partners in the business organization, there is a chance to have a greater impact.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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