Booksmart CIOs stub their toes on the way to corner offices

They say if you can’t take the heat, get out of the fire. But a new study finds that the old breed of technically articulate CIOs can’t even smell the smoke – leaving them vulnerable to getting burned.

A chief information officer’s (CIO) behavioral style, and not their intellectual ability, prevents many of them from moving into the CEO or COO’s office, according to a Korn/Ferry study.

The study released last week, titled CIO to CEO – Aspiring CIOs Should Focus on Critical Behavioral Skills, suggests that while reaching the role of CIO is a significant achievement on its own, many who hold the title aspire to higher C-suite posts.

The study found key differences between CIOs and other top executives. These include the speed at which they arrive at decisions when under pressure, and the manner in which they communicate their decisions to the people around them.

“CEOs and COOs have a greater call to action,” said study co-author Simon Wiggins, senior client partner in Korn/Ferry International’s London, England office. “They make decisions much more readily than the CIO.”

CIOs tend to check themselves before making a decision, he said. “The CIO is one of very few senior executives [who] has to work across all the different functions of a business.”

Korn/Ferry’s Information Technology Center of Expertise examined the observable behavioral differences, including: leadership, thinking styles, and emotional competencies, between CIOs, CEOs and COOs.

“A CEO, because [he or she] is traditionally the leader, isn’t worried about implications across (all business functions),” Wiggins said. “(Alternatively) the CIO thinks, ‘what will this mean for the various parts of the business that IT touches?'”

CIOs need to become more decisive, he said. Behavioral style, rather than intellectual ability, can be traced to whether CIOs are promoted to higher levels, according to the study. Fortunately, new styles can be learned, thereby helping aspiring CIOs get promoted.

“Each of these (management) styles are learned behaviors,” Wiggins said. “The good news for CIOs is that you can coach and teach them to behave in slightly different ways.”

Key behavior skills that need to be learned by CIOs, and are critical to succession, include becoming more action-focused and less analytical, the authors found. Further, CIOs need to learn to become comfortable with an action-focused leadership style and leave the tactical details to others.

CIOs have to move away from decisions made about technology and take on more responsibility for decisions made about commercial aspects and the long-term success of the organization, Wiggins said.

“This is the first global study that has identified the behaviors of C-level executives,” Wiggins said. “The CIO function is changing, changing relatively slowly, but is this (study) saying anything earth shatteringly different to what they may have (already) believed? Probably not.”

But, in some ways, it takes a little science to prove it, he said.

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