Must-Have CIO Skills: Innovation, Business-Savvy

Over the centuries, technological innovation has spawned changes in how and where people live, play, work and provide for their families. The late Harvard Business School professor Jai Jaikumar described how fire, the wheel, the lathe, the steamboat, the locomotive, the automobile, the telephone and the airplane were transformational inventions. But his research shows that societies generally took 30 to 40 years to understand the possibilities of these inventions and leverage their use. When Jaikumar spoke to my IT group at Frito-Lay in the early ’80s, he described the invention of the computer as similar to other transformational technologies. He predicted that the computer would go through a birthing period, a childhood and an adolescence before eventually reaching maturity. He estimated that this cycle would take a full human generation. I believe Jaikumar’s historical perspective was correct; the computer age is now leaving its adolescence and will enter adulthood during this decade.

Jaikumar’s research on technological innovation yielded another important observation: People, companies and even national economies have risen and fallen on their ability to understand and master "game-changing" technologies. Manufacturers that didn’t embrace the lathe or the assembly line, for example, perished. Countries that were slow to adopt the steamboat or railroad fell behind in commerce.

If this pattern holds for the information age, then the responsibilities of the CIO in the modern corporation are staggering. It’s a very tall order to be able to recognize the game-changing nature of IT, to have the street smarts and influencing skills to navigate executive committees to the right decisions, and to then have the technical savvy and skill in execution to deliver the goods. Most IT professionals have some of these leadership skills. Acquiring and employing these skills will be essential to IT leaders in 2010.

By then, most corporations that think IT doesn’t matter won’t be around. The leadership skills that CIOs will need for the rest of this decade fall into three major categories: understanding the lay of the land, building a great team and having an impact. I’ve organized the leadership skills into a framework that I believe can help many good leaders become great leaders. (In my next few Total Leadership columns, I’ll talk about these competencies in greater depth.)

Getting the Lay of the Land

The first skill that will be required for great IT leadership is pattern recognition. In essence, this is the ability to see underlying relationships and get at "the meaning beneath the surface." CIOs with this skill can distinguish the important factors in a situation from "noise," demonstrate this insight to their colleagues through discussions and decisions, and craft a compelling story of the organization’s challenges and opportunities.

Another important skill for IT leadership will be street smarts. CIOs need to learn who the important players are in their organizations and industries and know what issues matter to them. CIOs must know their organizations’ full history and all the baggage that has built up over time. They have to be politically adept, leveraging their relationships with people to address problems and opportunities.

Technical knowledge is often dismissed these days as something CIOs can delegate. Nonetheless, IT leaders in 2010 will need to be technically savvy-able to sort complex issues independently and take advantage of technological opportunities while avoiding fads. Other corporate officers should view the CIO as a thought leader. One good way to accomplish this is by staying abreast of important technologies and trends.

Building a Foundation

The first leadership skill in this category isn’t really a skill-it’s a quality. CIOs must show personal character. This means doing and saying what’s right, not just what is expedient or what others want to hear-even if it’s at substantial personal risk. Without the credibility that comes from demonstrating character, you can’t build a great IT team. In 2010, as today, CIOs will need committed staffers and partners to be successful. This will require mastery both of "hard" management skills (such as establishing clear performance expectations and dealing firmly with poor performers) and "soft" skills (such as mentoring and celebrating team successes). CIOs must foster passion among their staffs and suppliers and build a sense of enthusiasm for the work at hand.

In the next few years, the importance of influence and persuasion skills for CIOs will only grow. Leading other executives to a full understanding of the game-changing nature of IT will require a planned approach to influencing. Involve other execs in IT decisions to get their buy-in, and customize your approach for each person. There are limits to your personal influence; only by persuading others to support your course can you move the organization in the right direction in its use of technology.

Creating Impact

Once you’ve gained an understanding of where IT needs to go and have built your IT team, you’re ready to make waves. CIOs in 2010 will need to be high-profile in their organizations. They must set a course for others to follow toward strategically important goals. They must act with bold decisiveness-when there’s a difficult decision to be made, don’t hesitate. You know you’ve become an impact player when you can accomplish tasks without having to always lean on your formal authority. The credibility you’ve built gives weight to your opinions.

A lot of lip service is paid today to the notion that CIOs should act as business partners. By the end of this decade, however, it will become vitally important that IT leaders fully engage with their colleagues in the business-not simply to get their buy-in on IT projects, but to provide input that business leaders actively seek out. CIOs will need to articulate unstated business needs and guide the organization to better processes and solutions, tactfully challenging their colleagues’ positions, when necessary.

Finally, CIOs in 2010 will need to be resilient. When there are problems-as there always are-IT leaders will need to emphasize solutions rather than hurdles. When IT is changing the game, you’re the one who needs to develop new approaches to work over, around and through obstacles and setbacks.

I believe that by 2010, every CIO of a major, prospering corporation will possess all of these leadership skills, by definition-because organizations without great IT leadership will be also-rans. For today’s CIOs, the requirement for the future is clear: Build on your strengths and work hard on your weaknesses. We each need to be personally accountable for improving our leadership skills if we are to become true change agents.

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