The critical move from IT leader to C-level

In the progression from IT staffer to Business Strategist CIO, the watershed moment often comes with the transition from Senior IT Leader to Function Head CIO. On the accompanying Leadership Competencies Development Journey graph, this critical juncture appears as the thinnest of vertical lines separating the Staff Level from the C-Level, but in practice it can be a wide gulf. And there is another line that must at least be reached by the prospective Function Head CIO: the horizontal line that separates the merely active demonstration of leadership competencies from their proactive application to make long-term organizational impact.

As we detailed in the first installment in this series (“Your Leadership Portfolio: Developing the Competencies of a Future-State CIO“), different combinations of competencies come to the fore at each stage of the journey, with each combination forming the foundation for the competencies that lie forward and upward across the lines. Because Strategic Orientation is of the highest importance for becoming the Business Strategist CIO, it’s tempting to try to shorten the journey by jumping straight to the development of strategic skills. But in the absence of the foundational skills that precede Strategic Orientation, or any of the other higher-level competencies, the result is likely to be an abstract intellectual exercise that has no lasting impact or benefit to the organization.

That watershed between Senior IT Leader and Function Head CIO illustrates the interdependence of specific leadership competencies and the movement from reactive to active to proactive that results in increasingly longer term organizational impact from leadership actions. It is the stage at which the nature of the relevant competencies themselves requires a broader organizational perspective and field of activity.

The Senior IT Leader

Successful Senior IT Leaders will of course already have a firm foundation in the Functional Expertise that was important to them in their roles as IT staff members, and in the Results Orientation (usually personal results) they were expected to have as IT managers. As the Competencies Development Journey graph indicates, the most important leadership competencies for Senior IT Leaders are now Team Leadership, Collaborating & Influencing, and People & Organization Development. These competencies, in turn, prepare leaders for the even broader and more far-reaching C-Level competencies on the other side of the vertical line–and the more proactive behaviors that the best practitioners demonstrate:

* Team Leadership first emerges at the managerial level, usually in the reactive mode of simply leading teams, often in command-and-control fashion, to fulfill assigned tasks. At the level of the Senior IT Leader, however, one begins to manage people individually rather than collectively–acknowledging the range of skills on the team and the issues each confronts. The leader collaborates with the team to solve problems, educates team members to understand the objectives of the team from the leader’s perspective, and rewards those who act in line with those objectives. At the next level of this competency, the leader moves from collaborating to delegating, handing off responsibility to the team members in a considered way, based on understanding the relative strengths of each person. In moving from leading the team as a group to engaging its members individually and delegating responsibility, the Senior IT Leader has crossed the line from reactive Team Leadership to active Team Leadership.
* Collaborating & Influencing also first comes to the fore at the level of IT manager, but there it often means functioning well as a member of the team–working in concert with other team members and winning their agreement or cooperation in group endeavors. For Senior IT Leaders, however, it often means collaborating with and influencing not only the members of one’s own team but also the senior leaders of other teams across the IT function and sometimes team leaders outside the function. Such leaders know how to use the informal structure and dynamics within the organization to get things done. In fact, the more highly developed this aspect of Collaborating & Influencing, the more widely will the Senior IT Leader affect the larger organization.
* People & Organization Development is about the ability to develop the long-term capabilities of others and of the organization. Leaders who actively demonstrate this competency encourage people to improve, offer constructive feedback, institute sound assessment methods, and provide experiences that help them develop their abilities. People processes and capability are benchmarked against competitors and systematic capability reviews help anticipate and address changing needs. For the active leader, it’s not simply a matter of coaching or counseling individuals, but a matter of systematically building the capability of the team. It is this explicit focus on building organizational strength through the thoughtful development of individuals that prepares the Senior IT Leader to exercise the Change Leadership required of the Function Head CIO, who must be able to move the organization in a new direction.

The Next Stage of the Journey

All three of these competencies at the level of the Senior IT Leader possess a common theme–having an impact on the organization through the active engagement of people. It is this overarching ability, acquired at the Senior IT Leader level, that enables the Function Head CIO to leverage the Commercial Orientation and Market Knowledge required in the C-suite–the subject of the next installment in this series.

Steve Kelner is a partner in the Boston office of Egon Zehnder International. He is a leader of the firm’s Leadership Strategy Services practice, specializing in management appraisals and team effectiveness. He can be reached at

Chris Patrick is a partner in the Dallas office of Egon Zehnder International. He leads the Global CIO Practice. A former practicing CIO, he helps firms across all industries identify, assess and recruit top technology talent. He can be reached at

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