What Moving from Good to Great Means for CIOs Who Want to Lead

Author Jim Collins explains why he sees CIOs as quiet leaders, and what challenges they face in their drive to be the best.

Jim Collins, author of best-selling business books Good to Great and (with Jerry Porras) Built to Last, is nearing completion of his latest research effort, a look at organizations that have thrived while operating in environments characterized by severe disruption. An avid rock climber, Collins uses the analogy of performing well high on a mountain, in an environment characterized by fast-moving and unpredictable forces. Collins believes that most leaders today feel they are metaphorically moving higher on the mountain, and notes that this might be especially true for CIOs. He and his research colleague, Morten Hansen, have been researching the question of why some companies prevail in such environments, while others fail to perform (or survive).

Jim Collins


Collins shared some of his initial findings at the CIO Leadership Conference held April 29-May 1. After his talk, Collins spoke with CIO Senior Editor Stephanie Overby about what CIOs can learn from his research on leadership, including what he calls the “asymmetric risk” IT leaders must manage every day, and why CIOs are uniquely qualified to succeed in the CEO role.

CIO: You spend a lot of your time studying CEOs. At the CIO Leadership conference where you spoke earlier this year, you had the chance to spend some time with leading CIOs. What did you learn?

Collins: As we got to talking, I was really struck by the duality of risk and opportunity CIOs have to manage. On the one hand, a couple people talked about threats of cyberterrorism. I mean, this is real stuff—I had no idea how real. You add that to how dependent companies are on their information systems and technology systems–one CIO I spoke to said that it used to be if we went down for a few hours it was annoyance; now it’s a catastrophe–and that’s a huge burden. Man, this is one of those really, really tough jobs in life where every day that’s a success, you’re invisible. Yet the one day when something goes wrong, you become very visible. What a hard job when you think about it.

At the same time I was really struck by how CIOs are really energized by wanting to help push the organization forward, to do innovative things, to bring in things that advance the flywheel of business.

Thinking about how they deal with that duality is how I came up with the image of CIOs being like climbers. You don’t want to just cower in your tent and never go up. That’s not living. That’s not really being a CIO. At the same time you don’t want to make the one mistake that will kill you. That duality of putting yourself in a risky environment–going for the summit, going to try to do something bold and being really disciplined about protecting your systems, not making the one mistake that will bring us down. I wouldn’t go so far as to say no other role in the business is like that. I don’t know that. But it strikes me that this role is pretty far out on that curve.

Next: Managing "Asymmetric Risk"

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