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The path from good to great for the CIO

Mark McDonald
What makes a good CIO great? The last few blog posts have sought to answer this question in terms of the characteristics of a great CIO. The characteristics, listed below, provide some guidance on what a great CIO is, but not necessarily how a good CIO becomes great.

  • Great CIOs have great teams.
  • Great CIOs are business leaders and see business results.
  • Great CIOs understand IT's leverage points in their business model
  • Great CIOs communicate clearly.
  • Great CIOs ask good questions.

There is no single sequence of steps to being a great CIO. There is no repeatable sure-fire recipe. But there are some common stops along the way. These include:

  • Being a good CIO, one that leads IT to meet its commitments. This is no easy task as CIOs have multi-facetted commitments across operational, budget, schedule, requirements and resource commitments. A CIO that cannot meet their commitments does not have the basic credibility to secure the great teams, lead business results, etc..
  • Having demonstrable business experience, particularly immediately before becoming CIO. This may be a little controversial, but prior business experience is essential to have the credibility with peers and know what is required to use IT leverage the business model and create results. Great CIOs have experience in process-centric parts of the business like supply chain, linguistics, procurement and customer service.
  • Having a significant time in the enterprise so they know the players, the history and the fundamentals of the operations. On average, great CIOs have worked at their company for more than 8 years and rarely does a great CIO move immediately from one company to another - despite what their press release says.
  • Deliver a major transformational initiative for the enterprise, not necessarily just in IT. Great CIOs have a major success that proves their skills as a business and technology leader. Launching a new product, replacing major systems, restructuring the enterprise or a new business unit are examples.

Some things that you would think are true about great CIOs but are not necessarily so include:

  • They do not have to report directly to the CEO. About half of great CIOs do report to the CEO, but it is not a requirement. Great CIOs do not demand to report to the CEO, they wait until their business results get them the seat at the table.
  • They have to have a strategic and business understanding of technology they are not necessarily technologists. The minimum requirement is the ability to exercise their expert judgment about technology decisions, particularly in terms of IT's leverage of the business model.
  • The great CIOs get there through time and stay there by evolving IT and its role in the enterprise. A great CIO recognizes the dynamic relationship between business and technology and the need to continually invest in IT capability and productivity. They learn from past failures and do not dwell on past successes and so does the entire organization. Being a great CIO is a title they have to earn every day.

What makes a great CIO? The makings of a great CIO are same things that make a great executive, leader and person. That is great news as greatness is all within the realm of possibility.

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Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research for Gartner Executive Programs, writes a blog on the Gartner Blog Network.

Mark McDonald will be a featured Keynote Speaker at the Fusion 2010 CE0 - CIO Symposium, March 10 - 11 at the Fluno Center in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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