by Chris Curran

Does a Great System Make a CIO Better?

Jan 20, 2010
IT Leadership

IT organizations that have management "systems" in place - in addition to talented individuals - are best positioned for success.

If we think of the operation of IT being a lot like that of a complete business, it is important to think about the various types of skills and management styles beyond the typical functional areas, like apps and infrastructure. While it may be sufficient to develop a perspective on your team’s strengths organically, a more measured and proactive approach should yield a higher-performing team.

For example, some of your team will be better suited to drive the analytical thinking required to measure IT’s effectiveness, while others will be better fits for broad communications to customers and business leadership. Configured properly, the set of complementary strengths represented by your leadership team are very powerful—but you have to know who is really good in specific areas.

You can either guess at your team members’ strengths or you can use a more scientific method. This theme came up at a recent CIO conference when organizational psychologist and leadership coach Bill Rollwitz discussed “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” a book by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton that focuses on enhancing people’s strengths rather than eliminating their weaknesses. The book describes 34 positive personality themes and, through a Web-based tool, readers can complete a Gallup Organization questionnaire and instantly discover their own top-five inborn talents.

I am a firm believer in the uncanny accuracy of the well-established behavior tests, such as Kolbe A and Myers-Briggs. With a formal or informal view of your team, there are two questions to ask:

1. Is the team balanced across leadership and behavioral traits?

2. Is each member’s role a good fit with his or her inherent behaviors?

A colleague of mine thinks of it in terms of building a “renaissance team” as opposed to seeking out “renaissance people.” He says it feels as if there are two parts of the organization where this is most important and where the typical gaps happen. The first is between IT and the business. The second—and less obvious—area lies between the application team and the infrastructure team. In many cases, these individuals aren’t only on different teams they are in different cities and may even work for different companies. They often form their identities based on functions rather than the projects they work on.

The System Quarterback CIO

In football circles, it’s common to hear the term “system quarterback,” which is a way of saying that a solid, if not spectacular, quarterback can flourish if he is part of a well-defined system of coaches, culture, personnel, and offensive philosophy. That same quarterback may go to a different team and never have the same level of success. Many analysts attribute this disconnect to the idea that team management and the coaching staff can established a successful system, as opposed to assembling talented pieces and hoping they mesh.

Could a similar situation exist for senior leaders in top companies? Could some companies have a system that combines coaching, culture, personnel, and a set of core processes (“plays”) that could make its leaders better?

General Electric comes to mind. It’s generally accepted that GE knows how to build good general managers, particularly CEOs. Diamond’s founder and chairman, Mel Bergstein, describes this kind of company as an “academy firm” and talks about Goldman Sachs as having a similar capability. A University of Western Ontario study found that GE has an exceptional management development process and that ex-GE managers bring significant enterprise value to their new companies.

In understanding exactly what kind of system GE has built and the value it adds, they used the VRIO framework to analyze it:

Value – Can it directly address opportunities and be applied to threats?

Rarity – Do other firms have this resource?

Imitability – Can other firms quickly/inexpensively replicate it?

Organization – Is the firm organized to take advantage of the resource?

Using the VRIO lens, the Western Ontario team concludes that GE’s management development program adds sustainable competitive advantage. While not easily replicable, HP, Johnson & Johnson and a few other companies are also known for leadership development. Within these companies, the CIOs and CIOs-to-be take advantage of their general management program along with their peers across the organization.

Few companies can match GE’s program and culture. But innovative companies that have information-based products or “wrappers” around products—companies in which the CIO is a core member of the executive team with clear responsibility and accountability—can build systems that are particularly well-suited to help a CIO excel.

Chris Curran is Diamond Management & Technology Consultants’ Chief Technology Officer and managing partner of the firm’s technology practice. He writes the CIO Dashboard blog at, and can be reached at or @cbcurran on Twitter.

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