The Evolved CIO

The Evolved CIO

This is the second in a three-part series of articles addressing the career path of the IT executive. Part I discussed the road to CIO. In Part II, a relatively new phenomenon is addressed -- the emergence of the next generation of CIOs, chief executives who are redefining the profession by becoming business thought leaders as well as technology leaders. Next month, Part III will discuss the importance of identifying and developing future CIOs.

Recently, there has been a distinct evolution in the role of the CIO. This trend began with a segregation of CIOs into those who operate in the traditional technology-oriented role, siloed away from other business functions, and those who operate as business thought leaders, breaking ground by creating a real interface between IT and other business functions. Within this latter group, another subgroup of CIOs has emerged: the "super" CIOs, an elite group of chief executives who are raising the bar and becoming strategic members of corporate leadership. It is this new generation of top IT executives who are redefining the role of the CIO.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of the CIOs that Korn/Ferry International is involved with on a regular basis are falling into this new category of "business leaders first, technology leaders second." In other words, business acumen has become the priority. In fact, the new CIOs possess many of the attributes held by successful CEOs and chief financial officers. Chief among these qualities is a keen understanding of strategy and business, as well as an appreciation for the importance of execution. A 2005 Gartner survey of 1,300 CIOs listed the transition of IT toward business process and intelligence as one of the top three challenges CIOs face.

Becoming a business thought leader, however, is often a learned skill for CIOs. This is because IT has traditionally been isolated from other business functions and treated in most organizations as an expense item rather than as a way to generate revenue. The new CIOs get the linkages between business and IT and, in fact, don't even see a separation. They have elevated the importance of the IT department and positioned themselves as strategic partners at the executive table.

Not that technology is any less important. It's a matter of applying technology in a way that strategically improves the business functions of the organization and having the business acumen to accomplish it. It's not just about getting products to and from locations faster, easier and cheaper. It's about using a technology solution to improve a business process, thereby generating more revenue and improving customer satisfaction.

In fact, for those CIOs who have succeeded, there is one common denominator. They all work in an environment where the value of IT is leveraged, and they have all either created or driven a corporate culture that embraces the value of technology. The new CIOs now possess a number of the attributes held by CEOs and CFOs; chief among these is a keen understanding of strategy and business, as well as an appreciation for the importance of execution.

Similar to their super CFO counterparts, super CIOs have the ability to do the following:

  • Extract more value for shareholders.
  • Hatch creative ideas, orchestrate deals and fix troubled companies.
  • Be nimble -- compete with outside consultants and vendors.
  • Know where and how the money is made.
  • Be a master salesman (traditional CIOs lack people skills).
  • Participate in the top management team.
  • Play investors advocate.
  • Not get emotionally attached to projects.

Actually, our research has shown surprising differences in the way CIOs and other C-suite executives approach crucial leadership roles. Behavior style, rather than intellectual ability, determines whether CIOs are promoted to higher levels.

More specifically, based on data gathered by Korn/Ferry International on thousands of top executives and analyzed by Decision Dynamics to determine statistically validated success profiles, we have learned that successful CIOs all have three things in common in terms of their behavioral style:

  • A willingness to look beyond the borders of IT and to view their organization as extended communities of interrelated business units cooperating to achieve defined sets of goals in defined periods of time.
  • The ability to think in terms of profit and loss, rather than costs. When CIOs have a cost mind-set, they are viewed by others as functioning in a supporting role rather than in a strategic one.
  • A highly participative and social leadership style. In meetings and situations where they are not under pressure, they are inquisitive and relaxed. They involve and listen to others. Under pressure, however, top-notch leaders switch from a participative style to a more direct "social" leadership style that's characterized by taking swifter action and evaluating solutions in quick concert with others.

Furthermore, our research has found that successful chief executives all share similar profiles of emotional competencies -- feelings and motivations that give energy and direction to our behaviors:

  • Ambiguity tolerance (handling uncertainty; dealing with the unknown and unclear).
  • Composure (emotional stability in face of adversity).
  • Confidence (self-assurance and ambition).
  • Empathy (the capacity to understand others and one's self).
  • Energy (a sustained ability to handle complexity).
  • Humility (a lack of personal ego investment).

These traits are termed competencies because they directly influence the ways in which we go about performing our work assignments and the intensity of effort that we bring to our work when coping with environmental pressures and demands.

Fortunately for CIOs, new behaviors can be learned and adopted by diligently cultivating these traits over time. With a little extra effort, it is possible to grow beyond the traditional CIO mind-set and embrace the behavioral styles of successful top executives that will be expected of the next generation of CIOs.

Grooming yourself for this evolution, however, will involve seeking out situations where you can demonstrate measurable business results. It also involves improving your people skills and thoroughly studying financial statements to get a deep understanding of how businesses work. Lastly, it means seeking opportunities to interact with board members, other business functions and customers.

In conclusion, the next generation of CIOs will be expected to literally outperform their function -- to go beyond the limitations of their function to be a real strategic partner, and to understand how the strategic use of technology can improve a company's competitive position. Also, these CIOs will create and drive an IT culture that is inseparable from the business culture.

Andrew Hickman is a client partner at Korn/Ferry International. He is based in the company's Dallas office and can be reached at

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