What makes a CIO truly great?

Whenever one talks about high-performance or leadership there is a tendency to break out a list. For example, Major League Baseball scouts are in constant search for rare “5 tool” players who can hit for power, hit for average, field, throw, and run. Is there such a list for high-performance CIOs? If so, how long might it be?

I asked a group of executives for the most important adjectives they would use to describe successful CIOs. The responses included, in alphabetical order: accountable, adaptable, curious, decisive, eloquent, empathetic, financially savvy, focused, hard-working, intelligent, improvisational, interdisciplinary, mindful, motivational, patient, practical, principled, strategic, thick-skinned, trusted, and visionary.

That’s 21 skills and traits. Quite a list, just to start.

And that’s not surprising given that people have been writing about leadership and performance for a long time. Greek philosopher Plutarch (born c. 46 AD) studied the lives of famous Greek and Roman leaders and concluded, “All who wished to become civic leaders first had to gain the confidence of their constituents.” (See How to Be A Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership.)

If we unpack “gain the confidence of their constituents,” I think what Plutarch was saying was that first and foremost a leader must be “followable.” Another possible adjective for our list.

Anthony Sheldon, longtime chronicler of the leadership strengths and weaknesses of British Prime Ministers (Johnson at 10: The Inside Story), concludes that what makes leaders followable is being “able to tell a story of where they have come from and to where they will lead us.” Add “communicator” then to the list of must-have CIO adjectives.

Of course, I do have to add a qualifier here because it is not enough to be a great communicator. Receivers of messages are paying increasingly deeper attention to the authenticity and substance of the narrative being presented. Many firms have been caught out in the embarrassing situation of having spent more time and money on crafting and delivering messages audiences want to hear — for example around sustainability, diversity, AI-capability sets, and privacy — than on programs in these hot-button, snatched-from-the-headlines areas. The info-space is cluttered with tales of greenwashing, AI-washing, privacy-washing. You have to walk the talk for the talk to have impact.

Another mandatory adjective associated with CIO success is “knowledgeable” —and not just about the current internal IT environment, but also about the geopolitical-economic context, internal political/cultural dynamics, what the organization is capable of, and its appetite for risk and change, in addition to technological possibilities evolving and to come.

As Peter Drucker famously said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Achieving that requires a wide range of knowledge, but for CIOs, the basic building blocks of tech know-how can’t be overlooked: data management, infrastructure and operations, telecommunications and networks, and information security and privacy. Twenty years ago, CIOs had to be knowledgeable about enterprise systems. Today, it’s all about data.

Or as Vince Kellen, the award-winning CIO at UC-San Diego who is thought to be at least two standard deviations ahead of typical CIO-ness, says, great CIOs, as a starting point, get “deep inside every aspect of the team formation of IT and the technology and the architecture of IT.”

And of course, the ingredients of the CIO knowledge set that create stock-price multiple value exponentialization are situational awareness, organizational/cultural Fingerspitzengefühl, and opportunity identification.

US Army General James H. Dickinson, commander of US Space Command, when speaking to students at the United States Army War College talked about situational awareness prioritizing the need to “understand the competition” and to be aware of “what our competitors are doing.” Simultaneous with stabilizing the internal IT resource, CIOs must remain aware of what their peers are doing.

Dick Dooley, a pioneer in crafting leadership development programs for IT executives as one of the forces behind the founding of the Society of Information Management (SIM), uses the phrase “collective uncertainty” to describe the general malaise surrounding much contemporary thinking about the future.

Juxtaposed against Eliezer Yudkowsky’s absolute certainty that the end result of creating superhumanly smart AI is that “everyone on Earth will die” is the less strident assertion of CIOs moving forward in the AI-space that benefits will happen.

As a futurist I like to think that the true secret sauce of CIO success lies in being able to collaboratively craft a narrative describing a better future. I believe CIOs need to have a vision of what can be.

I was surprised at the end of my examination of adjectives essential to CIO success to discover that an apt metaphor for CIO greatness is gardening, as described by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf.  A gardener needs to have a picture in mind that “can translate into the ground.” A gardener needs to understand clearly “how the one plant [i.e., resource] will connect to the other.”

CIO, IT Leadership