CIO Leadership, Technology, IT Performance

What are the characteristics of a good CIO?

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What makes the best CIOs so successful? 

Is it technical expertise, or business acumen?

Is it the ability to run the day to day operations, or to deliver new projects?

Is it driving efficiencies from the current set-up, or building a vision for the future?

Where do people and relationships fit into this picture? Building and developing a strong team for example.

Richard Hawes generated some interesting discussion with his post "Is there a language barrier between IT and the Business?". Pearl Zhu wrote a great piece titled "IT at Cutting-Edge, CIO leads as a Bridge" which argues that the CIO acts a bridge between a number of things, including those mentioned above.

My view? The CIO is a chameleon that must balance all of the above and many more. Building relationships has always been a crucial CIO skill, however, being able to talk business is becoming more and more important.

What are your thoughts? What characteristics are key?

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Martin Davis 131 Points | Mon, 04/23/2012 - 01:12

The debate is still raging on LinkedIn and I found this useful summary of some of the key points:


Md. Muktarul Islam 0 Points | Thu, 04/05/2012 - 07:24

A good project manager can become a succssful CIO.

Martin Davis 131 Points | Wed, 02/22/2012 - 16:44

I just checked the LinkedIn thread related to this item and the debate continues to rage (its now been going for nearly 2 months and has had 185 replies).


You can add to the diuscussion at

John Dodge 1534 Points | Thu, 02/23/2012 - 13:35

I just noted the huge response in that thread and the FACT that the discussion started here with your post, Martin. Hopefully, a few of those commenters will drift over here.

Martin Davis 131 Points | Sun, 01/15/2012 - 13:50

The discussion on LinkedIn rages on with 95 comments and still growing. There has been some very interesting posts, one of my favorites is from Mike McCormick and is pasted below.

Fulfilling the CIO’s new role requires wearing many hats, which mirror the basic corporate functions.

•Strategist: Imagines and plans how IT can help its clients (internal & external) in their efforts to be more effective.
•Technologist: Understands technology advancements and their applicability to the business.

•Innovator: Combines technologies and business opportunities to create practical and compelling offerings.

•Marketer: Communicates and promotes IT’s capabilities and offerings to its clients.

•Designer: Defines and implements service delivery processes that can allow IT to keep its commitments while providing repeatable service experiences.

•Comptroller: Obtains and manages the funding needed to provide new and existing services to IT clients.

•Recruiter: Enlists, motivates, and mobilizes existing and new staff.

•Revolutionary: Changes the way the business drives value.

These are the same roles typically required by any entrepreneur or executive who wants to build market share by introducing a continuous stream of valuable and affordable solutions. Essentially, the CIO must act as the CEO of the IT "business."

As a business liaison, the new CIO should consider the capabilities he or she can deliver to business units so they can reach their goals. To do so, the CIO must have an understanding of the business as well as the organization's culture. Modern CIO’s like modern CEOs - should speak the language of their customers. They must go beyond taking orders to proactively step out of the back office to foster innovation and drive the standards that can accelerate deployment.

The CIO must balance stakeholders' interests in pursing the "cutting edge" technologies with the realities, rewards, and risks associated with jumping on a technology bandwagon. For example, cloud computing may present a major opportunity for many enterprises, but such a big technical shift must be justified by a specific business purpose. Further, the growing sophistication of edge technology capabilities requires the CIO to manage the expectations and needs of individual business owners by balancing the need for agile business technology with sound corporate IT governance. Even more pressing are the consumerization of IT and the growing demands of enterprise constituencies to have their work technology be at least as good as their technology at home. The CIO should not be the naysayer of new things, but instead, should become the educated soothsayer of what is possible.

Taylor Armerding 11 Points | Sun, 12/28/2014 - 15:42

Great stuff - I like all of it, but Mike's observation about how IT can "help its clients (internal and external)" is sometimes under valued. If IT treats departments within the business as clients, that can improve communication and relations, which helps things to function more effectively.

Martin Davis 131 Points | Fri, 01/13/2012 - 00:51
When I wrote this post I did not realise how much discussion I would generate. Checkout the LinkedIn discussion sporned from this post which has so far had 79 comments, check it out at Bill Laberis has also just posted a video arguing that the CIO must not forsake technology, see
Paul Calento 255 Points | Fri, 12/30/2011 - 16:54

Here are some discussions taking place on LinkedIn that were inspired by this post.

CIO/CTO Leadership Council: Does "driving efficiencies inhibit needed IT vision? Or are the two linked?

CIO Forum:What are the characteristics of a good CIO? (2 comments)

CIO Network: What's more important to a CIO, technical skill or business acumen? (8 responses)

Enterprise CIO Forum (on LinkedIn): Being a great CIO is a series of tradeoffs. Which one's do you make?

--Paul Calento

(note: I work on projects sponsored by and HP)


Martin Davis 131 Points | Wed, 01/04/2012 - 13:12
Paul, thanks for re-posting, as always the technical vs business argument generates the most robust discussions.
Hassan Syed 0 Points | Thu, 12/29/2011 - 07:33

There is no silver-bullet, no secret formulae and there are hardly any people out there that can deal with every organizational culture, maturity level and type of business leadership. It all depends on who you are and where you work. Having said this, in my opinion, a good CIO must have the ability to understand the business and must be able to identify opportunities associated with the use of technology, both for top line and bottom line.

Pearl Zhu 90 Points | Wed, 12/28/2011 - 18:05

HI, Martin, happy holidays, thank for the thought-provoking blog post at the end of year, to inspire all of us envison & pursuit of excellence of IT management in the new year, also enjoy Richard's post you refered to, just read another good article about 6C principles (connected, consistent, calibrated, complete, communicated, and current) to measure IT, the update IT Scoreboad can surely help enhance customer communication, prioritize and manage application portifolio effectively and enforce governace thanks

Martin Davis 131 Points | Wed, 01/04/2012 - 13:14
Pearl, happy holidays to you as well. Thanks for posting the link to the 6Cs article, not one I had read and a very good guide to creating useful metrics.
Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Wed, 12/28/2011 - 15:21

I believe the answer is “All of the above” which is why the CIO job can be such a challenge.  Successful CIOs have to master Maslow’s Hierarchy for IT, which means that the operational aspects must be reliable,  projects must be delivered on time and budget and the organization must be nimble enough to respond to emergencies and opportunities. Only then can the CIO  and his or her organization consistently be accepted as a true strategic partner. Technical knowledge is important but without strong leadership and managerial abilities the organization, and its leader, cannot succeed. 


I am constantly amazed when I consult with companies who are unhappy with the performance of their IT organization and its leadership (or lack thereof!).  What I usually find is a person at the top with little leadership ability, poor people skills and a “head in the sand” approach to correcting ongoing problems.  What did the company expect when they put someone totally unqualified to lead in a leadership role that is as demanding as the CIO role?  Yes, technical knowledge is important but without leadership ability one cannot succeed as a CIO in today’s business environment.


Martin Davis 131 Points | Wed, 01/04/2012 - 23:18
Joel, thanks for including your Maslow's hierarchy of IT, it was remiss of me not to have mentioned it. As you say IT needs to get the basics right first and sometimes puts its head in the sand over its problems. I have also noticed that in some companies, even where IT might be doing an ok or even a good job on the operations side, that there can still be a tendency to still be very insular with limited focus on the business. Have you found that in your experience?
John Dodge 1534 Points | Fri, 01/06/2012 - 18:19

Just in case anyone want's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a point of reference. Does it feel we expect CIO's to be self-actualized sometimes? Or self-transduced...whatever that is?'s_hierarchy_of_needs

Physiological needs

Safety needs

Love and belonging





Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Fri, 01/06/2012 - 01:11

Hello Martin,

You are exactly correct, at least based on my somewhat limited experience, that there are a number of companies where IT gets the fundamentals right but never rises above the basic service level.  In these cases I believe what you are seeing is strong technical and project management skills but poor business acumen and overall leadership.  The frustration, from the standpoint of the business executives I speak with, is usually expressed as something like, “They are good at the technical stuff but are not strategic at all.  We need them (IT) to find ways to grow/improve (fill in the blank) our business.” In these cases they are usually looking to replace the CIO or, in the case where an officer-level position doesn’t already exist, create one to strengthen the strategic component of the organization.  A non-strategic CIO, no matter how good the basic services, is unlikely to last in a highly competitive and technology-dependent company where IT is critical to revenue generation and competitiveness.


John Dodge 1534 Points | Thu, 12/29/2011 - 12:54

My daughter asked me recently if athletic performance was more talent or hard work/practice. I told her an athelete starts with a baseline of talent and builds skills from there. To some extent, leadership is similar. Some people have it and others don't. 

I also think the emphasis - technical or business oriented - depends on what an enterprise needs at any given time. Needs shift. However, if the CIO wants a future, they need to focus on business solutions, innovation and agility. That's because historically they haven't...that if they don't become an integral part of the business, they will increasingly operate on the margins.   

Paul Muller 119 Points | Fri, 12/30/2011 - 00:47

You make a great point - the same is true of accountants, project managers, etc

You meet some that are naturally great at what they do, but are unwilling to "cross the streams" with business and wind up being excellent, but excluded from promotion/leadership at the executive level.

John Dodge 1534 Points | Fri, 12/30/2011 - 04:16

Change affects (or afflicts) all professions. Editors and reporters who did not embrace the Internet were left behind. And some who did were left behind anyway. There isn't a worthwhile profession in free market economies that hasn't changed dramatically in the past 15 years. Technical morphs into proposing business solutions. Print journalism morphs into bloggining, linking, page views and Tweeting. Producing crappy cars morphs building ones that last 10 years. We all have to adapt. I was going say adapt or die, but that sounded crass...but when I was editor of EDN, the mantra of electrcial engineers was "innovate or die." Sadly, many chose the latter course....while others thrived. 

Fifteen years ago, we were reporting that CIOs who understood the unique characteristics of their businesses and who could parlay that knowledge into action would succeed. I'm sure all that much has changed except that the technical need is not as great as it once was.  



Martin Davis 131 Points | Sat, 12/31/2011 - 10:15
Let me play devils advocate......... So if business is key, why does a CIO bother to stay current with the latest technology thinking? Surely they should spend their valuable time reading Harvard Business Review and the Financial Times, rather than CIO magazine?
John Dodge 1534 Points | Sat, 12/31/2011 - 13:40

They should read both CIO and HBR...not sure about FT. Maybe the Economist, too.....HBR has done a lot of cloud computing...conversely CIO does stories about business. Like CIOs, those publication have adapted, too. I don't think it's either or.

Also, stories are consumed as they are discovered and freely available online. The allure is the story, blog post or whatever interests the CIO - not so much the magazine . Magazine brand is important for underlying credibility. That's my experience. 

I have linked to several HBR stories recently, but I am not a regular HBR reader. For instance:

One other magazine worth checking out might be CFO.....



Martin Davis 131 Points | Sun, 01/01/2012 - 01:49
The magazines were just examples for the sake of argument. The question I was asking John was: if the CIO needs to have such a strong business bias, then does he really need to have strong technical knowledge? Especially when he has good people working for home who know the technology. Why should a CIO spend time staying current with technology? (btw, my personal view is that it is essential, but we can discuss that later).
John Dodge 1534 Points | Tue, 01/03/2012 - 14:53

Martin, I think you answered your own question...that a technical background encompassing a solid overview of technology is essential....perhaps breadth and not so much depth. How can a CIO manage technical people with no technical background? The CIO has to know what his subordinates are talking about just like a general has to understand what his commanders are doing.

Make sense?


Paul Calento 255 Points | Tue, 12/27/2011 - 23:39

Key to CIO success is bringing excitement, direction and empowerment (inside and, more importantly, outside of IT) to enhance the capabilities of the organization. Being a great technologies isn't required. But an openness to technology and its effective application is.

Arguably impeding this trend is the budget. However, great leadership can work within that constraint.

--Paul Calento

(note: I work on projects sponsored by and HP)