No more secrets to CIO success

Just a few years ago during the dotcom boom, it became fashionable to argue that CIOs were poised to become CEOs. It was believed that CIOs’ unique enterprise perspective, both broad and deep, and their knowledge of IT — the new arbiter of competitive advantage — better qualified them to ascend to the top spot than managers who had taken more traditional routes up the ladder.

A few CIOs did in fact become CEOs (most notably Michael Capellas at Compaq and MCI, Kevin Turner at Sam’s Club, and Christopher Lofgren at Schneider National); but in hindsight, that prediction was way off the mark.

Now a massive study of all types of executives shows that, in fact, successful CIOs and CEOs tend to be quite similar in leadership behaviour — with one important difference in their thinking styles. Whereas CEOs (and other senior managers such as CFOs) tend to make decisions very quickly, zeroing in on one workable solution and taking immediate action, CIOs tend to evaluate situations from a variety of perspectives before coming up with multiple solutions.

Using data compiled from more than a half-million top executives (nearly 1,500 of whom were senior-level IT leaders), executive recruitment and development company Korn/Ferry International has developed a statistically valid success profile for CIOs. Leading CIOs and CEOs, according to the research, both are highly adaptive and open to change. Successful execs of both stripes also have a good sense of humour, are likable, and are excellent collaborators and team players.

This finding confirms the views of the CIO profession of Ron Ponder, who has accumulated a breadth of experience like few other IT execs. Ponder, who in July was named CIO of WellPoint when it merged with Anthem to become the largest HMO in the U.S., says, “If you look at CEOs or COOs or CMOs, the guys who rise to the top have a set of qualities that enable them to do that. The CIO is no different. They’ve just chosen technology as the route, while the others chose something different. We all wind up at the same place.”

Korn/Ferry’s leadership profile should put to rest the hackneyed stereotype that CIOs lack personality. “There’s long been a myth that CIOs are extremely intelligent, can create systems and deal well with complex data but are not very social or outgoing,” says Gary Hourihan, president of Korn/Ferry’s strategic management assessment practice. “Yet it’s clear the better CIOs design systems to reflect the strategy of the business, interface regularly with other senior management and are not icons sitting in their offices.”

Profiles in Success

Korn/Ferry’s executive leadership assessment started out as an adjunct to its recruitment database, in which the company has long compiled all kinds of job history and salary-related information on a variety of professionals, from supervisors to C-level executives. The company added a leadership component to focus on the behavioral requirements of job openings, rather than matching skills sets, as is traditional in the recruitment business. After evaluating various assessment tools, Korn/Ferry settled on one created by Decision Dynamics, a firm founded by academic specialists in career assessments. A notable aspect of the Decision Dynamics methodology is the thinking style of executives, which Korn/Ferry managers felt provided a more complete picture of an individual than do other leadership tools on the market, such as the popular Myers-Briggs assessment test.

The Korn/Ferry profile is administered online. Executives registering at the recruitment website are asked to complete a two-part questionnaire that measures their responses to hypothetical situations. The results are fed back into the main database. The top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent in each job category are compared after sorting the data by three factors: compensation, career trajectory and the quality of company. Smaller-name companies are weeded out, for example, as are candidates without vice president or senior executive titles. From there, the behavioral styles of the upper echelon CIOs are compared and contrasted with the lower ranks. In addition, successful CIO traits are weighed against those of successful CEOs.

The goals of the exercise are to determine if successful CIOs have fundamental differences in leadership style relative to their less successful counterparts, and to see if they share traits with the rest of top management. The answer came back a resounding yes on both counts. What the research shows above all, Hourihan says, is that effective CIOs, along with the rest of the upper management team, have moved away from the command-and-control leadership approach to a strong, interactive style. “There are better trained, smarter people coming up through the management ranks demanding to be heard, and that’s made a difference in how companies are managed,” he says.

Given the complexity of today’s global marketplace, all varieties of top executives — from technology chieftains to marketing gurus — realize that they need to solicit information from others to make the best decisions without being blindsided. That lesson applies particularly to CIOs, says Ken Brousseau, CEO of Decision Dynamics. “If users are unhappy and not using the technology, then the whole IT strategy goes to hell in a handbasket. Yet tying IT and business together in some sort of coherent fashion cannot be accomplished by an autocrat or superexpert.”

Being a mere order-taker doesn’t cut it either, given that users often don’t know what they need and lack a real feel for the potential of new technology. “You must become part of the fabric of the business,” advises Ponder. “You can’t just sit around, listen and take orders, and you can’t always talk about the latest technology gig. You have to understand how to weave technology into the entire strategy of the business.”

Therefore, for CIOs to be successful, they need social and behavioural qualities that can help them tap into what their constituents really need: what’s dubbed a “social-participative” style. On a leadership level, CIOs with the best track records in the Korn/Ferry assessment score high on their ability to seek out the input of others and facilitate consensus-building, working through issues with peers and subordinates. From an emotional standpoint, the successful CIOs have been shown to have high levels of confidence and empathy — the latter characteristic being critical to their ability to deal with many different personality types.

I Think, Therefore I Am a CIO

Where successful CIOs veer off from the rest of upper management is in their thinking style, which the Decision Dynamics assessment defines as the way people act when they are absorbed in a problem or comfortable with an individual. Leading CIOs have what’s called a “creative-complex” style, which means that they put emphasis on collecting data and contemplating all of their alternatives before putting anything into action. These CIOs typically come up with multiple courses of action for any particular problem, and will reexamine their decisions and make adjustments as required. As pressure mounts, successful CIOs will pull the trigger. But they won’t do so as quickly and definitively as other executives, including CEOs, who tend to “satisfice” — a term for acting decisively with just enough information.

This difference goes hand-in-hand with the CIO role, notes Hourihan. CIOs shouldn’t be making snap decisions without examining all the relevant supporting data. Ponder adds, “Successful CIOs today have the same qualities of leadership that would make a person a good CFO or COO or CEO. But unlike many of the other senior-level managers in a company, the CIO lies at the crossroads of the business. Therefore, they need to have that all-around view in terms of understanding the entire business because they serve the entire business.”

Even so, it’s hard to separate out causes and results of thinking styles. This one area of difference between successful CIOs and others in upper management may very well explain why more IT heads don’t culminate their careers by landing the top executive spot. While many of the behavioural qualities of Korn/Ferry’s leadership profile can be modified with training — learning better listening skills, for example, or being coached on how to be more adaptive and entertain multiple solutions — it’s much tougher to alter an innate personality trait such as thinking style.

Nonetheless, Ponder is confident that CIOs have the right stuff for the corner suite. “It’s still not a traditional route, probably due to the fact that it takes a long time for images and beliefs to go away. And today, the classical image of the CIO as a technologist still exists,” he says. But he sees that slowly changing: “As technology continues to permeate the fiber of a company, you’ll see more skilled and versatile CIOs come up through the ranks with mentoring and the exposure many of us had.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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