“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.”  -John C. Maxwell

 I recently had the opportunity to read Gartner’s Predicts 2012:Four Forces Combine to Transform the IT Landscape in which they predict that four forces, cloud computing, social media and social networking, mobility and “big data” or information management will wrestle control of IT spending, and with it control of the IT environment, away from IT.  Any of these four forces would represent a significant challenge to the traditional IT world but the combination represents the potential for what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen calls “disruptive innovation.”  Disruptive innovations start small but quickly grow and, usually catching traditional competitors by surprise, disrupt and transform the marketplace or industry.  Some notable examples include Amazon.com (booksellers), iTunes (music distribution) and digital photography (just look at Kodak today!).  I believe that the four areas described above combined with the overall trend towards the “consumerization” of IT has the potential to completely disrupt IT as we know it.  Sadly, many CIOs will ignore this trend and, in the tradition of Kodak ,who even though they invented digital photography, couldn’t let go of the film business and now face bankruptcy, will face irrelevance.

IT folks like control.  We thrive on standards, rigid governance processes, methodologies and architectures.  These disruptors have the potential to upend all of these.  The challenge for CIOs and other IT leaders will increasingly become how to lead in the absence of direct control. 

We have faced these challenges before but usually on a smaller scale and frequently with poor outcomes.  Allow me a few examples.

How many IT organizations resisted personal computers when they first became widely available in the 1980s?  How many resisted linking these PCs through local area networks?  Quite a few, only to loose credibility and have to then accept the PCs employees snuck into the company and the LANs employees installed on their own without help from “MIS” as it was called in those days.

In the late 80s a program called Chem Draw was released for the Macintosh that allowed chemists to draw perfect organic structures complete with correct bonding, calculated molecular weights and all of the other things organic chemists love.  “No Macs” said IT groups in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, only to have dozens of the lunch box shaped devices show up in labs disguised as mass spectrometers or other forms of laboratory equipment.  Apple Talk networks soon followed.  Employees, especially smart ones, are very resourceful. 

In the mid-90s I was recruited to a large pharmaceutical company in the northeast to turn around a badly floundering IT group whose leader had just been fired.  At this time a large number of R&D IT heads were loosing their jobs in the pharma industry and, determined to not share their fate, I conducted an informal survey to see if I could sort out what was happening.  It turns out that three technologies, combinatorial chemistry, high throughput screening of compounds and genomics, all heavily IT-dependent, were revolutionizing pharmaceutical research.  The dearly departed IT leaders simply couldn’t cope with the changes they needed to make in order to exploit these.  I didn’t make that mistake.

If today’s CIOs are to successfully cope with this new wave of disrupters they will need to learn to lead through influence, not positional or organizational control.   I believe that this will require, at a minimum, four competencies.

Technical Proficiency

Get your own house in order first.  If your company is having to continuously deal with outages, missed deadlines, budget overruns and poor service, you can forget having influence.  Get your organization in order.  This is a prerequisite for everything else.

Second, CIOs and their people need to thoroughly understand these new technologies.   Stock answers about security, reliability, or “not fitting into our architecture” simply won’t cut it.  If there are problems and risks these need to be well understood, clearly articulated, and presented with viable options.  There is no room for being lazy.  Do the research and due diligence.  Be the experts.

Translational Skills

Instead of hiding behind a wall of acronyms and techno-speak, CIOs who want to be influencers must learn to be effective translators.  One of the most valuable traits a CIO can possess is to be able to translate complex technical concepts into relevant and easy to understand language.  I am fortunate to be good at this.  It served me well during my career as a CIO and generates a surprising amount of consulting work.  This is one of the top areas I am asked to work with my executive coaching clients on.

Change Leadership

Leading change is perhaps one of the most important competencies for executives today regardless of their field.  For CIOs, who are always at the forefront of change, this skill is critical.  CIOs need to be part of the solution, not the problem and to do so requires both comfort with disruptive change and competence in leading others through it. If you need help start by reading John Kotter’s classic Leading Change. It remains the best book on the subject I have ever read and his eight step process works.


Too often IT organizations, and their leaders, are characterized by a form of “IT groupthink” characterized by caution, risk-aversion, obsession with control and a “we can’t do that here” attitude.  I have seen this to one degree or another in almost every IT organization I have dealt with.  Innovators don’t think that way and CIOs and their organizations will need to innovate if they are to influence.  Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen have written about the Innovator’s DNA, which consists of five skills:

Questioning -allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities 

Observing -innovators detect small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things.

Experimenting -they relentlessly try on new experiences and explore the world.

Networking  with individuals from diverse backgrounds, they gain radically different perspectives.

Thinking– the four patterns of action together help innovators associate to cultivate new insights.

CIOs  and their key staff will need to cultivate these skills in order to stay ahead of the rapid changes ahead.

John C. Maxwell in his classic on leadership The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership said this about influence.

“True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated.  It must be earned.  The only thing a title can buy is a little time- either to increase your level of influence with others or to undermine it.”