Why Can't My CIO Be More Like Me?

Every profession has its stereotype. Operations guys are risk averse. Marketing types are emotional. Finance wonks are narrow-minded. CIOs are interpersonally awkward and out of step with the business.

Stereotypes persist because, at some level, they contain some truth. People gravitate to professions that fit their motivators and abilities. Operations guys are disciplined. Marketing types are creative. Finance wonks are detailed oriented. CIOs are systems thinkers who are fascinated by how things work.

Our differences are important and define our unique contributions. But differences are also inconvenient. And many companies are incapable of effectively managing the differences and try instead to manage out the differences.

In the last 15 years, companies have wanted CIOs to act less like CIOs and more like general business leaders. Problem is, when you try to have it all, sometimes you don't get what you really need. In thinking about what you need out of your CIO, consider the following:

The CIO job is really, really hard. Imagine trying to deliver complex products and services to technically unsophisticated and, for the most part, patently uninterested business "partners." Factor in the difficulty of ensuring security and operational stability while delivering new capabilities. Consider the difficulty of doing so while incorporating disruptive technologies and constraining funding. And do all of the above while convincing your internal team to stay focused and motivated. The CIO job is hard and it makes many good CIOs look bad.

CIOs, in their heart and soul, should love technology. You need a CIO who knows how can technology can be applied, what technology is ready for prime time, and how to make sure that it works, rather than hurts, the business. Consider AT&T's iPhone incident. The company's technical infrastructure failed to process orders and keep information secure. There are myriad possible root causes — forecasting, financing, staffing, and technical. If options were considered, risks assessed, and decisions were made that ended up being wrong, that's understandable. But if any of the executives in charge (sales, finance, operations, and IT) didn't know what they didn't know, that's inexcusable.

Great CIOs are technologists who have mastered the art of leadership. They are leaders who possess technical acumen, but also understand how to improve and grow the business, influence others, deliver results, and drive strategic change. Unfortunately, most leaders, and CIOs, are good, but not great. Research shows that only 10% of leaders possess strong capabilities across the five critical attributes: character, interpersonal skills, professional acumen, results orientation and strategy change.

If you're lucky, you'll have a great CIO. More likely, you'll have a good one. Generalists don't make good CIOs. If your company spends a lot on IT or is interested in doing something remotely interesting with technology, don't trade off technical skills for general leadership skills. It's okay that the CEO of BP isn't a drilling expert, but let's hope (for BP's sake and ours) that he has one sitting in his staff meetings. As long as your CIO is technically savvy and able to deliver results in a high integrity manner, cut her some slack and lend her a hand. Help her define how technology can drive your business. Partner with her to sell in a strategic initiative. Coach her on how to present the IT spend in a way that woos the CFO. Take the lead on driving strategic business change.

It's our differences that make us special and underlie our unique contribution. Since your CIO will never be like you, or you like him, it's much more productive to focus on perfecting the relationship and forgo trying to perfect the person.

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