Six Characteristics Of Highly Successful CIOs

The Times' excellent business writer Sathnam Sanghera had a fine piece published last week suggesting the real qualities needed to be a CEO*. These weren't so much the vision, empowerment and other guff often cited by management gurus, he suggested, but attributes such as a capacity to sleep on long-haul flights and an iron stomach to withstand airline food. It was, I suppose, composed partly tongue in cheek, but it pointed to the unfashionable notion that business leaders are just like you and me but with the odd human foible or fallibility conquered.

In similar vein I've been thinking about the attributes CIOs need based on spending many years (but especially the last two-and-a-half) speaking to them and reading their views. I've deliberately left out all the obvious stuff that is often presented as groundbreaking at drab conferences, such as business alignment, building intimacy with C-level execs, communicating skills etc. With that said here's my rough count of the key ingredients needed to build a CIO Superman.

1. Confidence. I haven't met many CIOs who lack confidence although that can come in many forms from arrogance and rudeness via chippiness through bonhomie and humour to exhibiting a quiet, thoughtful mien. It's a useful personality trait as many C-level executives still secretly believe that IT might well have been something cooked up as business mumbo jumbo while others just see the CIO as the guy responsible for slow boot sequences on laptops or email outages. You need a thick skin and a steady smile to keep strong and carry on.
2. An understanding family. I feel tired just hearing about the travel schedules of many CIOs. Two-day hops to Europe, tours across regions, regular visits to Asia, Africa and the Americas... It all adds up to an accretion of tiredness and stress and even if you can cope with it then there's still a significant other and the horrors to consider. 'Darling, we all miss you but we understand your work is important and appreciate that the schedule is not easy for you either, so go away and we'll all be waiting for you and so happy to see you again!' I suppose there are women (and men) who say these things although I'm not sure I know too many like that. But then I'm not a CIO.

3. Physical fitness. On the legendary CIO Questionnaire (nicked in part from the remarkable James Lipton's TV show Inside The Actors' Studio) we ask a killer journalistic question: 'Do you practise a sport or follow a sportsperson or team?' Nearly all do both. From football and rugby to diving and flying, they sweat it out to have the mental clarity needed to keep on top of affairs. Business affairs, that is. Obviously.

4. Foreswearing the bottle. Even as a seasoned journalist, your author here has had to cut back on alcohol intake, moving from a healthy youthful thirst to a mature man's minuscule ration: a Friday evening pint and a half and a thimbleful of sherry on special occasions. The days of wine and roses are gone even in the inky trade where a new spirit of professionalism prevails and networking is frowned upon. Few CIOs these days have the look and feel of a boozer. They look more like retired footballers, slim, rich in muscle and sinew, and glowing with health. A few glasses might get glugged at a testimonial for a sporting great but that's all for charity, you know.

5. Knowing when to say goodbye. Like a Premier League football manager, if a CIO manages for years in the job, s/he is a veteran and greybeard sage of the business. Many jump ship after a couple of years or build a career on being short-term transformation merchants. Although IT leaders have the reputation of being a staid, dry bunch, the real CIOs tend to be dynamic careerists.

6. Risk-taking. A new characteristic of the successful CIO might well be the tendency to take chances by deploying something new and different, whether that's kicking out Microsoft for Google or through deep dives into the rapids of open-source software or admitting consumer tools into the enterprise. On installing Google Apps, one said publicly that he wanted to be seen as a CIO who did things differently. That might be the only option left for those operating in distressed businesses and, if it comes off, it might also be good for the career.

*Despite signing up to jump the Murdoch paywall, a lethal cocktail of my own memory loss, The Times's SEO-baffling tactics perhaps and maybe slowness to update meant I couldn't find the link. If you can help, drop me a line. I read the piece on pulped dead trees on Friday.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams