A Change of Habit

A Change of Habit

Do you have the right habits to be an effective executive-level CIO?

Effective CIOs work closely with their executive colleagues. They're part of the executive team setting the agenda for their enterprise. Yet the CIO's personal leadership agenda is difficult to set especially in the face of newly competing pressures and tensions.

As part of our Gartner Executive Programs research agenda, we worked in partnership with leading executive search firm Korn Ferry International. Andrew Rowsell-Jones from Gartner and Mark Lelliott from Korn Ferry led a Melbourne-headquartered global team investigating how 30 top IT executives from around the world set their leadership agenda. More than 70 per cent of these CIOs were members of their enterprises' executive team. From these interviews and our continuing interaction with over 1500 CIOs globally we identified the CIO executive success cycle.

This success cycle is a lens through which to view how effective CIOs get a difficult and complex job done. It's about how you set your leadership agenda: the agenda to assess what must be done, to garner support and to ensure you have the resources to achieve it. It's about how you achieve the heart and mind-share of the executive so that you can IT-enable the business in a cost-effective and focused manner.

The CIO executive success cycle comprises four habits that intertwine both personal and business performance: shape demand, set expectations, deliver and lead. Although no single individual has all four habits in full measure, effective CIOs possess each one to some degree.


A key part of the CIO's role is to shape and manage informed expectations, in effect, to shape demand. Successful CIOs position themselves as part of the top organisational structure so they are engaged in discussions about mission-critical developments. They are part of the enterprise business agenda-setting and this then feeds into their own leadership agenda. As Evandro Canabrava, Director of IS/IT of the Brazilian company, Amazônia e Telemig Celular, indicates:"As an internal vendor we must act like a partner - give a lot of attention and care to our internal clients."

You need to know the business so you can recognise what is and isn't critical to business performance. Talk to your fellow executives in their language and about things they care about. If you are part of a public company, make sure you know the share price daily and how your fellow executives are rewarded. Helping make them more successful usually makes you more successful.

Identify the key business cycles and investment climates. Businesses have a natural beat at which things get done. These differ by industry. One CIO described his period working at a brewing company, with a business rhythm and billing cycle that billed customers monthly. It also had an annual business cycle as it progressively ramped up production for the hotter months of the year.

It's not enough to merely know the business. You have to demonstrate that you understand it so that your executive colleagues perceive that you understand the business. Your objective is to act and prioritise based on what the business really needs.

It is critical to know each member of the executive as an individual. One way to start is to recruit an internal mentor - if possible, a senior business executive who knows the individual executives involved. This mentor or coach can then open doors for you.


Once you understand the demand, you need to negotiate delivering it. This involves the second habit of setting expectations. But such negotiations are tricky. You need to know what's possible, clarify trade-offs, and negotiate hard without souring relationships.

To identify trade-offs you need to know and to communicate IS's capacity to manage and deliver IS services. Then you need agreement on business-driven architectural design needs. To avoid misunderstandings you must ensure that expectations are clearly understood by both sides.

The message from our CIOs is clear. Negotiation with peers and the CEO is part of an ongoing process, not a single event. See each negotiation in light of previous and future negotiations. For this reason, make these negotiations win-win. As one CIO commented:"Seek trade-offs and compromise but keep the process of negotiating live until a satisfactory result is agreed." Anything other than win-win may lead to a temporary victory at the price of losing the war - or even touching off a future conflict.


All the interviewed CIOs emphasised:"What's expected of a CIO is to deliver, deliver, deliver." If you don't deliver on your promises, you're not going to be given a chance to participate higher up the business and executive food chain.

To deliver in fast-paced times you need to address shifting business needs by fostering partnerships and using architectures and tight timetables to change how IS performs. IS attention to architecture improves execution discipline. Making explicit architectural trade-offs between future and current requirements improves executive governance.

As part of setting their leadership agendas, effective executive CIOs take a clear approach to timeframes. They achieve shorter milestones by"chunking" programs and projects into bits that can be delivered every 90 days.

Cassandra Matthews, CIO of BHP Billiton, says:"I have found that working in 90-day cycles really helps, especially when you move into a new position in an organisation. This is how I worked when I arrived as CIO at BHP. We ended up calling this Sprint 1."

Many of our interviewees talked of the need to"partner with the business". The difference between a partnership and a supplier/customer relationship is the amount of shared responsibility for success and failure. Partners are allies who carry a joint responsibility. Partnerships only flourish where both partners share a common set of business objectives.

Effective CIOs are able to set aside their ego - or they will find themselves set aside. Roy Dunbar, CIO of Eli Lilly, says:"Be prepared to hire someone with twice your IQ if that's what it takes to build a partnership with your business customers."


As CIO, you have a unique perspective across the enterprise - to spot opportunities and to solve business problems. So leading is the fourth habit.

Being a leader is a tough job. Being a leader of IS - often seen as an expensive internal service function - is even tougher. The job description requires leading the IS group and a cadre of external suppliers to ever-higher levels of performance, while being coach, mentor, service provider and PR person to their fellow executives and the CEO.

Good IS leadership is about never being satisfied with the way things work and continually striving to improve. IS leaders are not afraid to challenge the way an executive thinks about IS. Initiating change requires relentless pushing, cajoling, hassling, threatening and pleading in equal measure.

As IS leader, the higher the profile you take, the more vulnerable you become and the more criticism you will attract. Things always go wrong with technology. CIOs need to be comfortable with their own capabilities, and not take comments personally.

A key aspect of being a leader is recognising that your focus changes as you move up through the ranks. On the way up, priorities are 90 per cent functional and 10 per cent relationships. The higher you rise, the more this mix changes. In the CIO position, it's more like 10 per cent functional and 90 per cent relationships. And like all executive roles, it requires a large measure of political nous.

You can't use edicts or positional authority with your peers or the CEO. Instead you must rely on persuasion and relationships to influence outcomes."I know where the change agents are, where the pockets of resistance are. You need to get out of the change agents' way so they can do their job," says Jim Flyzik, the CIO of the US Department of Treasury.

The overwhelming advice on how to interact with your executive peers and CEOs is to make them look good and not take credit in public for what they claim are their achievements. One CIO said:"If I appear on the cover of CIO magazine, I always make sure that my boss appears on the cover of CEO magazine." Another said that when being interviewed by the media, he was always careful to say that his achievements resulted from his being lucky enough to work for a really great CEO who understood the value of IT.

Don't ignore difficult people - they might be right! Even if they aren't they can be very disruptive. So what should you do if you have to deal with very difficult executives? One CIO advises:"Lead from even further back. Put intermediaries between you and them. Make it your personal challenge to find out how to deliver value to them."

If successful in achieving each of these four habits, CIOs will find themselves able to impact their business executives, through their"helicopter" view of the enterprise. This will reposition them back at the first habit, shaping demand. From there it is a constantly revolving cycle.

The cycle gets easier once you have been around it a few times, but that is what it takes: learning from experience and persistence as you shape demand, set expectations, deliver and lead. Where are your strengths and weaknesses around the four habits of the CIO executive success cycle?

Dr Marianne Broadbent is group vice president and global head of research for Gartner's Executive Programs

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