by Thomas Wailgum

7 Essential CIO Leadership Skills That Get Results

Oct 19, 2010
Business IT AlignmentCareersCIO

What makes a CIO not just an effective manager but an effective leader? Consider the following advice based on three years of research from Korn/Ferry and Gartner.

In the new book The CIO Edge: Seven Leadership Skills You Need to Drive Results, the trio of authors argue that CIOs’ leadership and people skills are the biggest determinate of their success—or failure.

The book, written by Graham Waller of Gartner Executive Programs, and Korn/Ferry’s George Hallenbeck and Karen Rubenstrunk (formerly with Korn/Ferry’s CIO practice), doesn’t downplay the fact that CIOs still need to be operationally sound: keeping the proverbial trains running on time while managing to tight budgets.

But the most effective CIOs build strong partnerships with their employees, business peers and external partners—a type of “followership,” suggest the authors.

“CIOs understand they need to manage IT processes in order to deliver results and to meet key expectations. They also understand the need to lead people in order to deliver on those goals,” notes Waller, in a Gartner Symposium/ITxpo report. “However, what many don’t understand is the incredibly important interplay between the two.”

[ Read why CIOs need to be both operationally fit and strategically sound in’s The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead ]

The book’s insight is based on three years of data-driven research, the authors say, which allowed them to identify seven behavioral patterns and essential skills most critical to a CIO’s success. From the Gartner report, here is the list:

1. Commit to Leadership First and Everything Else Second. Gartner and Korn/Ferry’s research reveals that the highest performing CIOs are effective because they embrace the idea that everything they need to accomplish will be achieved through people, by people, and with people. They don’t pay lip service to that idea. They live it. They lead.

2. Lead Differently than You Think. A high-performing CIO is an incredibly complex and creative thinker. Yet when the time comes to lead, they don’t rely on their superior “smarts” and analytical skills to come up with the best possible solution. They act collaboratively.

3. Embrace Your Softer Side. Effective CIOs manage the paradox of gaining more influence by letting go of control and allowing themselves to be vulnerable. In turn, that vulnerability enables them to create deep, personal connections—connections that provide the ability to inspire people both inside and outside their organization.

4. Forge the Right Relationships to Drive the Right Results. This skill may not be surprising. High performing CIOs spend a greater percentage of their time and energy managing relationships that exist sideways: with internal peers, external suppliers, and customers. They purposely invest in horizontal relationships which form the foundation to drive extraordinary results.

5. Master Communication. The best CIOs know that their colleagues—especially the people who work for them—are always watching. These executives understand they are always on stage. They take advantage of that situation by constantly reiterating core messages and values. Through their focus on clarity, consistency, authenticity, and passion, they make sure their message is not only understood but also felt. They want to communicate a feeling that compels people to take the right actions.

6. Inspire Others. In exchange for a regular paycheck, most people will give an adequate performance. But they will only give their best work if they believe they are involved in something greater than themselves. The best CIOs provide a compelling vision that connects people to how their enterprise wins in the marketplace and that their contributions are meaningful and valued.

7. Build People, Not Systems. By developing people all around them, these CIOs increase their capability and capacity to deliver results. They also know that leaving behind the next generation of leaders is the best thing they can do for the organization—it will be their lasting legacy.

Soft skills, of course, won’t replace managerial and operational requirements of the CIO job. Instead, the authors state, those skills are a “powerful enabler and an amplifying force that allows individuals to exceed expectations and maximize the value from IT.”

“All CIOs must deliver results,” notes Waller in the Gartner report. “What distinguishes the best is how they do it: through people, by people, and with people.”

Thomas Wailgum covers Enterprise Software, Data Management and Personal Productivity Apps for Follow him on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. E-mail Thomas at