Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Makes a Successful CIO?

It’s been a little over 20 years since the role of CIO came into common usage. What has become known as Information Technology had been getting increasingly important across businesses through the 60’s and 70’s and into the 80’s. It had started directly impacting relationships with customers, suppliers and partners as well as internal operations and capabilities. The title, role, and importance of the leader of the IT groups had advanced in a progression from MIS Manager to Director of Data Processing to VP of IT and finally CIO.

In all the years since people have been trying to develop a complete, comprehensive, useful definition of what makes for success in the role of CIO, and by extension, how does one achieve that success? A recent effort of note is a study from IBM’s Institute for Business Value, “The voice of the CIO” (search at this URL for “CIO Study” and register to get a copy of the study). In conversations with more than 2,500 CIO's from 78 countries and 19 industries IBM has derived a solid model for CIO success.

On the down side some of the observations are not new.
They’re mere reflections of the reasons that the CIO role was developed in the first place. For example, the report says that “Successful CIO's are much more actively engaged in setting strategy, enabling flexibility and change, and solving business problems, not just IT problems.” This has always been the case with successful IT leadership.

On the up side, the study has lots of metrics (and one suspects IBM has many more not in the publicly available version of the study) that can help you quantify how well you’re on the path to living the standard of success. Staying on the idea of participation in setting strategy the report says that Today’s CIO’s spend an impressive 55 percent of their time on activities that spur innovation. These activities include generating buy-in for innovative plans, implementing new technologies and managing non-technology business issues.”

This sort of data can be quite useful. If you know the distribution of time spent of a successful CIO (per IBM’s data) and compared it with your own, or your own CIO’s distribution you can derive gaps and then decide why and how they should be filled. The study has many metrics of this sort.

What I think is the most interesting and insightful part of the study is, conveniently enough, the central finding, a model that describes the CIO’s conflicts between innovation and pragmatism, value creation and cost cutting, business leadership and managing IT.

Source: “The New Voice of the CIO” - IBM Institute for Business Value

Students of CIO’s and their roles well know that the job is inherently conflicted between making a fundamental, dare I say transformational change and getting the basic work out. This conflict goes back to before the role of CIO existed. One old-timer friend was the DP Director at a large manufacturing plant. The plant manager was a believer in computing and was constantly asking for upgrades and changes to systems. The director would make all the changes he could but would tell his developers, “JMSYD[S]UTP” meaning “just make sure you don’t [screw] up the payroll.”

So the basic tenet is that a successful CIO makes innovation real, raises the ROI of IT and expands business impact (of IT or through IT? Not clear). In doing so the CIO is balancing vision for the business with a well grounded understanding of what can be done. While pursuing that vision the successful CIO constantly reduces extant costs (more on this in a future post). And, the successful CIO operates within the overall business ecosystem but also within the culture, style, world-view of IT professionals. IBM’s analysis includes a nifty distinction for a CIO in a high, medium and low growth company or industry and more comparative metrics/methodologies to use in improving your odds of success. 3-D graphs and everything.

Working on Step 2

There’s enough information in the study that few of us can read it without finding something to quibble about, but the analysis is sound and it’s based on a great deal of source data. Staying entirely within the realm of CIO’s and the IT function I can get distracted by causality questions. Do successful CIO’s act this way because it’s in their make-up or is this the only way that CIO’s can be successful in business; other styles failing? It’s a Nature versus Nurture question. Do CIO’s come wired to span the three contradictions or does the business environment reward people who learn how to span the gaps?

More interesting to me is the reusability of the basic model. Intentionally or not IBM seems to have described a general model of management/executive success. Look at the CIO Success chart and replace the word “IT” with “Business.” The model would then state that a successful CEO or business generalist would make innovation real, raise the ROI of the business, and expand business impact. The executive would do so by being both visionary and pragmatic, both value creator and cost cutter and being able to manage to business collaboration (especially outside the company) and manage to the internal nuts and bolts.

Do another test. Change “IT” for “Sales.” The model still holds. Try other functions or geographies (e.g. “EMEA”) or markets. The model, with minor adjustments, still holds. You can imagine that had IBM done their study in a think tank without talking to anyone but only using a general model of managerial success and adjusting it for IT issues they’d have come to roughly the same conclusions.

This is not the model’s weakness. Since it comes from structured conversations across all those countries, industries and CIO’s it’s a reflection of the basic strength of the study. The IBM team has derived a model that says “successful CIO’s are solid business executives who happen to understand the IT function.” However “obvious” that may seem, the core model represents a way for non-IT and IT management, who often stare across a cultural chasm, to be able to talk cooperatively and intelligently. And that’s a good thing.


  1. Successful CIO's are the ones that can increase revenue, decrease costs, motivate and lead a diverse group of people, while effectively articulating a clear, coherent and consistent vision. These are traits that should be universal across the management strata. The fact that it is not is cause for reflection, and a clarion call for change.

  2. Forgive me, but the thesis seems to support the fact that CIO's come in all flavors, no one style is dominant, and that nothing has been validated as a consistent marker for CIO success.

  3. No forgiveness needed... Certainly agree that a monolithic definition of a successful CIO is hard to accept. Same observation for CEO's, CFO's, etc. There are some commonly found skill sets but not all CIO's are equally skilled.