by Matt Bishop

‘Burn the boats’ and other career accelerators for CIOs

Jul 29, 2015

Want to move from IT strategist to business leader? Be the person who asks killer questions, finds new mentors and takes big risks.

Many IT leaders aspire to becoming broader leaders within their businesses–say, chief operating officer or head of shared services. For those who seek to get promoted beyond IT, here are three accelerators that I’ve seen prove highly effective.

Master the art of the “killer” question. The right question, asked at the right time, in the right way, can grant you significantly more credibility and impact than any soliloquy on a particular topic.

The killer question demonstrates that you have broad knowledge (of business, technology, culture and financial matters), an appreciation of context and implications, and the sophistication to shape outcomes via influence.

Too often, IT leaders try to demonstrate these characteristics by expressing their opinions. A more effective approach is to build your individual knowledge base, use integrative thinking and, most important, become an amazing listener.

We’ve all seen this in action: There’s debate around a given topic and consensus seems difficult to achieve. Then, someone who has been relatively quiet asks a question that brings the issues into clarity and reframes the discussion so a decision can be reached.

Become this person in your interactions with those who can help you get to your destination.

Embrace new mentors. We all know the importance of a good mentor. But to make the cutover to a business leader, new types of mentors are often required.

Most CIOs have peers, personal coaches, academics and business leaders within their organizations who serve as their mentoring network. These mentors can help you develop skills, refine your approaches and navigate the internal dynamics of an organization.

However, to truly accelerate your transition to business strategist, you’ll need to broaden your mentor network and seek new perspectives that provide viewpoints outside your organization–from people who have minimal understanding of technology, and who do not necessarily understand your context or career path.

Seek mentors who don’t shy away from delivering tough messages. The key is finding new types of thinking that provide the perspectives and skills related to your destination, from individuals who are willing to lay out what you need to do to get where you want to go.

Develop a “burn the boats” mentality. Are you willing to totally risk what you have for what you want? Most people aren’t–including many CIOs who aspire to business leadership positions.

Quite often, people genuinely desire new roles but hedge their ambitions in case things don’t work out. Hedging can affect your behavior, and others will pick up on it–and they’ll begin to doubt your commitment.

If you really want to make the transition to business leader, you need to burn the boats — just as Hernán Cortés did in his conquest of Mexico on behalf of Spain.

The legend is that, upon landing in Mexico, the conquistador ordered his crew to set their vessels on fire. That meant failure was no longer an option. Once success became the only way forward, Cortés and his small contingent were able to conquer an entire civilization. While the legitimacy of the conquest can be debated, the Spaniard’s leadership was truly remarkable.

As you look to make the transition to leadership, burning your boats–and removing all options except success–will accelerate your progress.

Matt Bishop is the global managing principal for KPMG’s CIO Advisory practice. You can contact him at