by Kim S. Nash

The Best CIOs Are Great Leaders, Not Good Managers

May 21, 20083 mins

Top technology executives implore ambitious IT executives to stretch beyond mere management, to develop themselves and their talented teams.

The best CIO is an executive whom you don’t immediately peg as a CIO. He has shifted from technology manager to business leader, according to top technology executives speaking at our annual CIO Leadership conference this week in Boston.

But CIOs must realize they can’t get to that exalted state without taking time to cultivate their right-hand men and women, as well as other go-getter members of the technology group. Those people must be leaders, too.

“No one person can carry an organization,” said Elvis Cernjul, senior director of technical services at Spiegel Inc. “You surround yourself with people who execute.” Cernjul is a “Ones to Watch” award winner this year, one of 20 promising technology managers honored by CIO. He spoke on a panel at the conference Monday. (See Special report: The Future of IT Leadership and Four Secrets to Becoming a Rising IT Star.)

Debate at the conference often focused on what a CIO should do to make the people around him better. Identify high-potential staff. Take time to guide them rather than make decisions for them. Spend money on management training. Expose them to challenging situations but provide support. By doing these things, according to Steve Merry, CIO at Sara Lee, the CIO will heighten his own success.

“If my direct reports can’t mingle with the business, get respected and speak up, then I’ve failed, too,” Merry said during another panel discussion Monday. “Pick your team very well.”

Just as CIOs must develop their own people, CEOs must develop their CIOs, said Bob Badavas, president and chief executive officer of staffing firm TAC Worldwide. As a CEO, Badavas knows that he, and therefore the company as a whole, can only go so far without a top-flight CIO, he said. “The layer below the CEO is the enabler of how high we can fly. If my direct reports can’t push me up, that affects the business,” he said.

The CIO has arrived when any other executive he’s interacting with doesn’t instantly realize he’s a CIO, said Raj Gupta, who directs the CEO Perspective program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and a speaker at the CIO Leadership conference. “Can you talk in a way that doesn’t label you as a CIO?”

Good Managers vs. Great Leaders

Throughout the CIO Leadership conference this week, attendees and speakers discussed the differences between a good manager and a great leader. The list below demonstrates some identifiers are obvious but other shifts are subtle.

  • Good managers run projects.
  • Great leaders envision outcomes.
  • Good managers work methodically.
  • Great leaders display high energy and fully engage in daily life inside the company.
  • Good managers complete specific tasks.
  • Great leaders generate many ideas and can execute them.
  • Good managers realize different people must be managed differently, to bring out their strengths.
  • Great leaders get the most out of every person or situation.
  • Good managers organize and delegate.
  • Great leaders ask questions, challenge even executives.
  • Good managers mingle mainly in the rungs immediately up and down from their own spot on the org chart.
  • Great leaders mingle with strategy setters regardless of where they are on the org chart.
  • Good managers internalize the immediate boss’ agenda.
  • Great leaders internalize the CEO’s agenda.