CIOs: First Know Thyself

CIOs looking to improve their leadership skills must prepare to shift out of cost-cutting mode and start learning how to support business growth

In today's world of uncertain economics, raging consumerism and customer-driven metrics, if you aren't using technology for the purposes of attracting or keeping customers, or satisfying those customers' needs, you really should not be using it at all.

So CIOs casting around for ways to enhance their leadership skills could do worse than to start by becoming secret shoppers, according to Ron Ponder, PhD, one of the world's most celebrated and respected IT professionals. Act like a customer, he says, and go through the entire experience of the customer, because if you do not know what the customer is experiencing, you have no reference point for initiatives designed to make your service better.

"You must walk in your customer's shoes; you must be a part of your customer's experience, and I don't think many CIOs do that," says Ponder, the CIO and executive vice president of massive US health insurance company WellPoint, and a man who has accumulated a breadth of experience like few other IT executives.

"I maintain that you have to get outside of the company and look at the company through the eyes of the customer. You have to understand what the customer experiences and what the customer has to go through to navigate their way through a customer service experience. And you have to encourage your people to have the same kind of viewpoint of looking at the business outside in. You have to look at it from the viewpoint of the customer."

Such is leadership for today's CIOs. As the CIO role continues to evolve, there is constant reappraisal of the key leadership skills associated with the CIO function, including the way companies use the CIO, the CIO's relation to the senior officers and their performance expectations and evaluation process.

For instance, executive recruitment and development company Korn/Ferry International has developed a statistically valid success profile for CIOs that finds leading CIOs and CEOs are highly adaptive, open to change, have a good sense of humour, are likable and are excellent collaborators and team players. CIOs in the Korn/Ferry assessment score high on their ability to seek out the input of others and facilitate consensus-building, working through issues with peers and subordinates. Successful CIOs also display high levels of confidence and are emphatic enough to be able to deal well many different personality types.

However, as the criteria for a strong and effective CIO leader change CIOs would be wise to keep up. Research firm Gartner says with the next two years expected to differ sharply from the previous two for most IT management teams as the focus shifts from cost to growth, CIOs must urgently renew their leadership capabilities.

"The return of growth to the business agenda raises the bar for the business accountability of the IS organization," Gartner says. "IT leadership will need to demonstrate greater levels of accountability to support business growth than were required when cost cutting was the order of the day . . . Business leader scepticism over the value achieved from the installation of enterprise systems, such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and supply chain management, creates an unwillingness to invest before tangible results [can be seen]. Combine this with IS leadership's desire to retain the hard-won management disciplines during the past two years, and the importance of direct business accountability becomes clear.

"There are no more IT investments - only business investments - and playing a leading role requires that IT leaders have greater direct business accountability to participate in growth initiatives. A significant part of the IT leadership challenge involves more than running a tight IT ship - it requires building business credibility."

In Ponder's mind, the only way the CIO can build that credibility is to become part of the fabric of the business. You cannot just sit around, listen and take orders, and you cannot always talk about the latest technology gig. "You have to understand how to weave technology into the entire strategy of the business." However, he says becoming part of the fabric of business also demands the CIO install a series of leaders below themselves who share similar characteristics, because a CIO cannot be everywhere at once.

"You have to have a set of subordinates below you who, number one, must be better than you are, and two, must share those same attributes: they must be very business minded, they must understand that they have to go out and spend their time with the customer, they need to sit at the management tables of their customers, they have to live with their business customers.

"Then at the CIO level, you have to spend a lot of time with your business peers."

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