Is IT commanding the attention it should? You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who will argue that IT isn't increasingly important to business, and following on from this it would be natural to assume that IT leaders must be becoming more influential in business. But, as many recognise, this is not necessarily the case. A spate of surveys conducted towards the end of last year, such as those by Capgemini and recruitment firm Harvey Nash, all seem to point in the opposite direction -- CIOs seem to becoming generally less influential.
How can you buck the trend? Prompted by this paradox, we delved deeper through a research project, undertaken for the thought-leader network CSC Leading Edge, that was entitled 'Expanding the CIO Mandate'. Eight years earlier Michael Earl and Philip Vivien identified trends in expectations of CIOs and defined the future role of the 'New CIO'. This transcended the then-dominant technology focus to include contribution to organisational transformation, as 'Change Master' and business strategy direction. We set out to discover how the minority of New CIOs, who in our language had an expanded mandate, achieved this status and made some surprising discoveries.
We worked with CIOs who had an expanded mandate and retraced their diverse careers to discover two interesting and unexpected patterns. They seemed to share a largely common set of attributes, many of which are uncommon in the general IT population, and they all followed a similar, atypical career route. To pick just one common attribute, an almost universal characteristic of CIOs with an expanded mandate is adventurousness. They were all on a constant quest for new challenges to the extent that they would sacrifice security to test and stretch themselves, typically committing first and then working out how to deliver afterwards. Perhaps because of this, their common career route was not the normal linear progression through IT. Although they served a (usually accelerated) apprenticeship in IT, they soon turned their attention elsewhere in order to find new challenges. These were typically in general management roles in mainstream business units. When they returned to IT, it was in order to take a strategic stance. Neither their adventurousness nor their heterogeneous career progression is typical in IT. If these are the keys to success then it is not so surprising that relatively few make it.
Is this more than an extraordinary coincidence? Current general theories of leadership rank emotional intelligence and 'learning agility' as essential attributes for success. Inclusion of emotional intelligence probably will not cause any raised eyebrows, but what is learning agility? Learning agility is essentially the speed with which you can take charge in an entirely new situation: orientate yourself, assess the situation, see a solution and put it into effect. As Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas say in their book Geeks and Geezers, "The ability to process new experiences, to find their meaning and to integrate them into one's life, is the signature skill of leaders..."
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