The professional achievement I’m most proud of is seven people who once worked within my IT organizations are now CIOs of billion dollar companies.
Each of them asked me, “What does it take to be a successful CIO?” I would tell them that there are three key character traits and two key competences that make a successful CIO. The character traits are: (1) Be purpose-driven, (2) Be authentic and clear in your communications; and (3) Be true to your word. (i.e., be able to execute.)
When describing the two competencies, I would use a baseball analogy: “CIOs have to be able to do two things: (1) Throw a fastball, and (2) Hit a curveball.” Here is what I mean:
Throw a fastball: Let me first thank my good friend, Gerri Elliott, for this gem. It means that every CIO must have an area that he/she specializes in and is known for. For example, my “Fastball” is leading transformational change. I spent my career learning, honing and applying that skill. It became my brand years before I wrote the book “Mastering The Challenges Of Leading Change.” Other fastballs that CIOs have are Innovation, Re-building IT organizations, and Operational Excellence. They excel in those areas. I once interviewed Steve Koonin, President and CEO of the Atlanta Hawks. I asked him how he had been so successful in different companies and industries ranging from Coke, Turner Broadcasting, to the Atlanta Hawks. He said that his fastball was “Ideas.” He is very creative and brings new ideas with him wherever he goes. It’s critical that CIOs know what their fastballs are so that they are a fit for what the organizations they work for need. If they are not, they will not be successful.
Hit a curveball: CIOs have to be able to successfully handle situations that don’t come straight at them, examples being shadow IT, politics (there will always be more demand than resources so jockeying takes place), and crises such as a major security breach, a major operational failure, and a major system implementation failure. These are defining moments for CIOs. Their ability to not strike out when they are in a batters box and all eyes are on them will determine the trust and confidence the organization, CEO and board have in them. In other words, CIOs must be able to deal with dilemmas, whereas positions below the CIO deal with problems.
The way I developed my mentees’ fastball is by first working with them to determine what they are good at. People gravitate to their strengths. Once identified, we then went about honing their skill by giving them bigger assignments, responsibility and projects in that area.
To develop their curveball skills, I would always have them in the room with me when I was dealing with dilemmas, politics and problems. They were there not only to learn, but I would also seek their advice. For example, when I was CIO of Medtronic, an internal audit was done and we discovered there were over 30 separate instances of the same cloud-based CRM system throughout the company. The sales leaders within the various business units had signed up for them without involving IT. We already had a corporate CRM system that costs millions to install and operate, a system they had chosen not to use. The situation was political because we were walking the tightrope between a federated and consolidated IT governance model. It was also a classic case of shadow IT. Instead of making it a political battle, we consolidated all of the instances into one contract, got the businesses a lower rate, and formed a sales council to assist them in meeting their goals. We did not try to wrestle control away from them even though we had internal audit support because it would have destroyed teamwork. Instead, we started influencing their decisions. It resulted in a favorite saying of mine: “I don’t mind shadow IT as long as I’m the one casting the shadow.” In summary, you teach mentees how to hit curveballs by having them in the batters box with you so that they can see how you respond.
Going from being a direct report of the CIO to being a CIO is like going from the minor leagues to the big leagues. The game is played at a much higher level. CIOs must know how to pitch and hit to be successful – and train the next generation of CIO leaders.