CIO Magazine: September Issue

The C in CIO Isn’t for Celebrity

The best IT leaders have a powerful but rarely discussed trait: humility.

Longtime CIO Steve Bandrowczak has accomplished a lot in his career: He’s run large global organizations, spoken on the biggest stages and driven impressive results. But he still sets aside 30 minutes each day to learn something new.

That’s a big commitment for a globe-trotting executive who sleeps more nights at 35,000 feet than he can count. Why is he so diligent about continuous learning? As seasoned as he is, Bandrowczak says he recognizes he will never know it all, so he’s always looking to improve. His curiosity is a formidable tool.

After many years as a CIO at companies such as Nortel, Lenovo and DHL, Bandrowczak is now senior vice president for global business services at Hewlett-Packard. He’s one of several CIOs profiled in our book, Confessions of a Successful CIO, who demonstrates a powerful yet rarely mentioned leadership quality: humility. And in this digital age, dominated by selfies (look at me!) and cluttered with self-described “visionary” leaders, it’s time for some collective introspection.

Be Proud of Humility

Studies have found humility to be a valuable executive asset. A September 2013 study by a team at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business found that workers who thought their managers were more humble were more engaged in their work and less likely to seek employment elsewhere. A May 2014 study by Catalyst found similar results.

While interviewing the CIOs in our book, we found it refreshing that the best leaders share this trait. Yes, they’re confident, but it’s not ego-driven.

There are easy ways to spot a humble leader. For one, they talk openly and honestly about failure. Wayne Shurts, CTO at Sysco, starts leadership discussions by talking about mistakes. The results of one failure, early in his career at Nabisco, are “ingrained in my soul,” Shurts says.

The humble CIO will also emphasize his people’s importance more than his own. Shurts objects to corporate cultures where workers in the field are mere minions of headquarters staff. He thinks his people are more valuable to the company than he is.

Humble leaders also know they need to lean on others for advice and counsel. When Carol Zierhoffer was CIO of ITT, she had to do a 180-degree turn from centralizing the conglomerate’s systems and processes to decentralizing them so that ITT could be split into three companies.

Zierhoffer knew she couldn’t go it alone. One of her first decisions was to solicit insights from peers at companies like Motorola, Cardinal Health and Altria, all of whom had managed corporate breakups. She received some spot-on advice not only about the IT operations, but also about how to retain her best talent.

Let's Talk About Us

But the most striking evidence of a humble leader? When their organizations succeed, these CIOs talk about “we” and “our.” When something goes wrong, they talk about “I” and “my.”

The problem is that too many other business leaders don’t. We cringe at how often we find executives who are proud and self-important.

Humble people tend to be more likeable and more respectable—qualities you just can’t buy. While too many people are asking, “What’s in it for me?” humble leaders ask, “How can I help you?”

Will you embrace lifelong learning? Will you speak openly and confidently about your failures? Will you seek advice from your network—and give advice without expecting something in return?

Those are just a few of the questions current and aspiring leaders must ask themselves. As Sheleen Quish, another great CIO, told us recently: “Don’t lose your humility in the job. The ‘C’ in ‘CXO’ does not stand for ‘celebrity.’”

Dan Roberts is CEO of Ouellette and Associates. Brian P. Watson writes and speaks about IT leadership.

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