Becoming a CIO: the three leadership challenges

Would you like to be a CIO some day? If so you could make a start today by investing in your personal leadership development,...

Would you like to be a CIO some day? If so you could make a start today by investing in your personal leadership development, says Brinley Platts

"Leaders lead people," says General Norman Schwarzkopf in It Doesn't Take a Hero, "ordinary people with hopes and dreams and ambitions just like the leader".

I love this quote because it so neatly sums up the difference between leadership and management and between being a CIO and a regular IT executive.

CIOs usually have a strong leadership profile. That is not to say they were born that way, but rather like body-builders they have developed their leadership muscle. This is the first challenge because CIOs operate at the forefront of business change and this is a battleground.

Major projects promise big benefits they often do not deliver. They can obviously fail for technical reasons, but with the support available today that really shouldn't happen. However, big projects still frequently fail to deliver big benefits even when there is no technical failure.

The reasons usually boil down to the business not changing in the way the business case anticipated. And this is usually down to people: often senior executives, or politically astute middle managers. Whatever the immediate cause this is a failure of leadership.

Leadership doesn't end with change projects for the CIO. If they manage to deliver (and in the US many fail within the two-year average tenure), they have the opportunity to pursue our second leadership challenge: alignment.

If you do make it to CIO you may get a new take on this old problem. One reason you find
"Although it won't say so in the annual report - changes in direction, mergers and demergers can be pursued for the most personal of reasons"
Brinley Platts
it so difficult to achieve and maintain "alignment with the business" is because the business is often not aligned with itself.

CEOs find ways of achieving consensus and curtailing untrammelled personal ambition but the equilibrium which results can be unstable and - although it won't say so in the annual report - changes in direction, mergers and demergers can be pursued for the most personal of reasons.

Surely not? Show me an effective top team and I'll show you egos as big as planets and IT directors as political innocents in comparison.

Assuming the CIO has not become consumed by either of the above he or she should be in good shape for the third challenge - to do what CEOs claim they like, but really hate: they can "challenge and influence business strategy".

This means that as they play their part in the rough and tumble of executive life they can make strategic interventions. They can convince the CEO (sometimes over their own boss's head) that there is a better business model available that can cut out truckloads of people and paper, transform processes and bring more control to the centre, making the enterprise leaner, stronger and more responsive.

Isn't there a price to pay for this largesse? You bet, and it can be intensely personal. Anyone who gets invited to play at top table has to take care not to offend the established players or he/she is unlikely to last very long.

Without them on your side you will not be able to deliver anyway. Challenging business strategy is a major leadership intervention, probably impossible unless the business is in crisis.

So, if you want to develop your leadership capability what should you do? Make a start from where you are today. Sign up for a course and step up to the leadership challenges in your current role. Most organisations offer some kind of leadership development - although some of the more traditional courses are not very good. I favour the IS Leaders Academy, not surprising as I helped to create it, specifically for IT managers.

In the next column, we'll look at how you can prepare now to prosper in a merger for when it eventually happens to you.

Is leadership for you?
Whether you've already made it to the top or you're donning your gear ready to ascend, how do you make out with the three leadership challenges? > >Let us know with an e-mail.

Brinley Platts
is the founder executive and business development manager of the IMPACT Programme, a leading network for CIOs.

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