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4 competencies every CIO must master

By Joel H. Dobbs

Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business.  Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Executive CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.


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




IT analysts predict that four trends-- cloud computing, social media and social networking, mobility and “big data” or information management,--will be the factors that will attempt to 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 (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 lose 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 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 losing their jobs in the pharma industry and, determined not to 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.


Leading when you are not in control

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.



1.  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


 2.  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.


3.  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.


4.   Innovation

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. 


5 key skills of Innovators


 Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen have written about the Innovator’s DNA, which consists of five skills:


  1. Questioning -allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities 
  2. Observing -innovators detect small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things.
  3. Experimenting -they relentlessly try on new experiences and explore the world.
  4. Networking  with individuals from diverse backgrounds, they gain radically different perspectives.
  5. 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.”

About the Author


This account is for guest bloggers. The blog post will identify the blogger.



  Whie in my career I've never made it up to the CIO's office (perhaps yet?) I look look at your 4 competencies and wonder.  To what degree do you expect the CIO to be technical?  I've worked for good and bad CIOs and few of them were rarely technologists, by trade.  This may actually have been a bad thing since looking back we were always playing buzzword bingo during our CIO meetings.


  It makes me wonder, though, to what depth do we expect the CIO to be proficient?  I do expect they can get on social media, turn on their own PC and operate a tablet - but beyond that?  Do we expect the CIO to be able to tell us the intricacies of DLP?  Are we expecting a CIO to be able to understand software security, ITIL implementation in our CMDB, and the technical difficulties with resource orchestration for cloud?


  I guess I'm not convinced the CIO needs to be "that technical" if they're a solid business leader.  I would have put that ability to translate between his or her more technical direct reports (CISO, etc) and the CEO ... but how far beyond that do you think it should go?





An important question and one that will continue to come up from time to time in my blog.


Basically, as one climbs higher in an organization, especially larger ones, relationships become more important and technical skills less so.  Once one gets to the "C-suite" it is all about relationships and the ability to think and act strategically.  Technical competence is reflected not in the specific skills of the CIO but rather in their people and the ability of their organization to innovate and respond to technical challenges.  in other words, technical skills take a back seat to technical leadership.




Hi Joel


Interesting blog and I agree with most of it. From experience I would argue that "being and influencer" is definitely the most important competency of the four. Being a charismatic leader is then crucial besides being able to lead change although one doesn’t come without the other.


Most people believe you are born as a charismatic leader, it’s nothing you can learn, you have it or you don’t but I disagree with that and have written stuff in which I say that you can become a charismatic leader when you have certain characteristics. In the years I have worked with leaders I came to that conclusion and I made the effort to describe those characteristics and testing them on charismatic leaders we all know such as Nelson Mandela and Mahathir Gandhi.I came to the conclusion that they indeed have all of them in some degree.


I guess my point is that being a charismatic leader, being able to lead change (fast) is something you can learn and should learn if you want to be the “next CIO”…Without these competencies it will be difficult to be a CIO in the future...


BTW, JP Kotter isn’t the only “change guru”…there are many other…at a minimum as good as Kotter J


In my mind, the CIO should have enough technology understanding to be able to be "dangerous", but where he must excell is in the understanding of how technology can help the business. He should have the capability to "tell a story' on how, using technology, the key business issues of the enterprise can be addressed. That is what we most often miss. We have excellent technical people, we have great business people, but little understanding how to get the two working together.

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