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Future CIOs will look a lot like entrepreneurs


Joel Dobbs.GIF

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 Enterprise CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.


“This defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship - the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it and exploits it as an opportunity.” – Peter Drucker


Unlike most other C-level titles, the role of CIO is relatively new. The role has evolved rapidly in the past 20 years since it first emerged, and the role has been further complicated by quickly changing technology as well as the transition of once-obscure, complex technologies into the mainstream of everyday life. Being a successful CIO requires balancing an organization that delivers flawlessly in both operations and service with one that is creative, innovative and strategic. No mean feat, by any means.


I have had the good fortune of working with entrepreneurs over the past few years, teaching innovation and entrepreneurship, and advising numerous start-up companies. This experience, along with starting three companies myself and my years as a CIO, have led me to the conclusion that the successful CIOs of the future will look more like entrepreneurs (or intrapreneurs, the term coined for an entrepreneur working within a large organization) than the operational and process improvement-focused CIOs of today. In this series, I will be discussing, among other things, what entrepreneurial CIOs look like, what they do, how they stimulate innovation and how they build and sustain innovative, entrepreneurial organizations.


I recently read an interesting study by James Moffat Spitze and Judith J. Lee titled The Renaissance CIO Project: The Invisible Factors of Extraordinary Success, in which the authors interviewed 14 current and former CIOs selected by a panel as the most respected and successful CIOs to date. The questions were wide-ranging and, in the end, the personality profiles and work habits differ very little from those of successful executives in any role. In the end, the authors identified three “unique to their role” success factors common among all 14 “Renaissance CIOs.” These were:


  • Being a life-long learner;
  • The ability to build and motivate cross-functional teams; and
  • The ability to conceive and implement a customer-focused game-changing project that impacts the enterprise’s customers in a major and enduring manner.


Every one of the 14 CIOs had been responsible for the creation of a game-changing technology that reshaped or substantially altered their company’s business and, in almost every case, the technology focused on directly impacting the organization’s end-customers. They had to conceive and flesh out their idea, sell it to those who could provide resources, marshal and lead a team to create it and successfully introduce it into the organization and the marketplace. In each case, these individuals acted not only as innovators, but as entrepreneurs.


Michael Hickins, in a piece in the October 25, 2012 Wall Street Journal, writes, “Most IT organizations focus on fine-tuning existing business processes, and, at best, participate in helping businesses develop products or services other business leaders have thought up. But few of them participate in developing those ideas, or in helping develop new ways of monetizing them.”


He goes on to point out that focusing on business processes alone will only lead to incremental improvements. Quoting a speech from Gartner analyst Dave Aron, Hickins further states, “The enemy of digital innovation is the concept of business process. CIOs should look at the cycle of ideation, creation, engagement, offer, monetization and adaptation that represents most business models, and get involved with ideation, engagement and monetization.” In short, act more like entrepreneurs and less like process engineers.


Most successful entrepreneurs share several traits in common that separate them from the pack. Here is my list of some of what I believe to be the most important ones, in no particular order. Let’s look at these and what they would look like for CIOs.


Visionary- Successful entrepreneurs see things that others don’t. They have the ability to visualize a better future and a path for getting there. When one speaks of a visionary CIO the description usually is followed by examples of operational or implementation successes or perhaps seeing the value in a new technology before everyone else. While these are important components of the CIOs job, an entrepreneurial visionary sees not a new task, technique or technology, but a totally different way of doing business. Yes, this is likely enabled by technology, but the technology is simply an enabler. The vision encompasses more than projects; it involves disruptive and transformational change.


Passionate- Passion is defined as “intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction” or “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.” Entrepreneurs are passionate. They are excited by what they are trying to do. When I speak with entrepreneurs their eyes light up, their speech quickens, and they become much more animated as they explain their idea or the mission of their new company. An entrepreneurial CIO is passionate and this passion runs deeper than his or her function. Entrepreneurial CIOs are passionate about the mission of their company and the value their products and services provide. This passion is channeled into making the company better, not just improving its efficiency. Their passion is not just to make the IT function better, it is to make the whole enterprise better.


Confident – Self-confidence is essential for those who start new enterprises or take on the task of fixing and turning around old broken ones. Don’t confuse self-confidence with arrogance. They are not the same. A self-confident person is comfortable in his or her own skin. They are confident in their abilities but also understand their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and take appropriate steps to compensate for these. Arrogant people harbor a delusion about their own abilities and worth. Arrogant folks are over-confident, deaf to criticism and correction and insensitive to the needs and feelings of others. Arrogance is one of the top derailers of professional careers. A confident CIO knows both the IT business and the company business. They are self-aware and are equally comfortable giving advice and counsel and taking initiative in areas of strength. They are also comfortable seeking advice and input from a variety of others. Confident CIOs have no problem accepting responsibility and being held accountable for their actions.


Comfortable with ambiguity – Wouldn’t it be nice if everything in life were “black or white?” Unfortunately, most business decisions, especially at more senior levels, exist in shades of grey. One of the main reasons otherwise intelligent managers fail to advance in their careers is their inability to deal with ambiguity. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." That is also one of the tests of a successful entrepreneur. New ventures are inherently messy and uncertain, especially in the early stages. Entrepreneurs know this, learn to get comfortable with it, and lead themselves and their organizations through it. IT folks have a natural tendency to be inflexible. IT folks like “process.” They like standards and detailed project plans. They like predictability. The entrepreneurial world isn’t like that and CIOs need to learn to deal with this uncertainty and learn to lead their organizations through periods of ambiguity.


Risk tolerant – Entrepreneurs learn to understand, assess and accept risk. Risk is a constant companion for the entrepreneur and the ability to understand and manage risk is a daily task for most. One of the complaints most frequently leveled at IT organizations is their aversion to risk. “Too conservative” is a frequently heard complaint about CIOs. Entrepreneurial CIOs understand that risk is a part of the job. Nothing worth doing comes without some risk of failure. To the entrepreneurial CIO the destination is worth the hardships, and risks, associated with the journey.


Creative – Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations. I believe that creativity is a prerequisite for innovation, which I will discuss, in my next post. Entrepreneurs find creative ways to solve difficult problems or create products that allow people to do things they couldn’t do before or enable them to do them is radically different ways. Entrepreneurial CIOs are creative. They transcend traditional ideas, and traditional ideas about the CIO role itself. They truly think, and act, “outside of the box” and create organizations that do the same.


Self-motivated – Successful Entrepreneurs have an internal motor that starts them up in the morning and keeps them going until they fall asleep at night. This motor continually challenges, motivates and excites them. The fuel for this motor is the chance to do something that could change the world, or change people’s lives. It is the desire to do something of significance that will outlive them. An entrepreneurial CIO has this same drive for significance. It is a drive to do something big and meaningful and this drive gives them the energy to push ahead when others lose focus and give up.


Restless – Most of the successful entrepreneurs I know are never satisfied. They always believe they can do better. They always have one more big idea they want to pursue. I had lunch a while back with a guy who had recently sold his company to a larger one. His share? A cool $30 million, give or take a few thousand. What did he want to talk about? His idea for his next company. Restless. The desire to keep moving. We need more CIOs with restlessness to do more, bigger and better things.


Energetic – I’ve never met a lethargic entrepreneur, at least not one who is successful. All of the things described above require energy. Unfocused energy usually manifests itself as activity without purpose-busyness. Entrepreneurs have energy and they focus it in the right places. They manage themselves and their use of time well. Like a predator in the wild, they expend their energy on the activities most likely to result in a meal (or in the entrepreneur’s case, success). It is not enough to just have energy, knowing how and where to focus that energy is the key. CIOs need to know their “one big thing” and make sure that the use of their time and energy is directed at what is most important.


Persistent – Finally, entrepreneurs are persistent. They persevere through hardships, around obstacles and over setbacks. They don’t give up without a fight. I have a friend who is the CEO of a small biotech company. He is trying to get his next round of funding and told me recently that he hasn’t taken home a salary since January (it is late October as I write this). Is he giving up? Nope. This isn’t his first start-up and probably won’t be his last. He keeps doing investor pitches, keeps developing his product and keeps pushing forward. Entrepreneurial CIOs must be persistent because all of the easy stuff has already been done. The game-changing stuff is difficult and only people who persevere through challenges succeed at difficult things.


These traits describe people, and organizations, who make things happen. Do they describe you? Do they describe your organization? The future belongs to the people who make things happen.

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Another great post. One of the big changes that I have been seeing is the spliting of the orignal CIO role into a CIO and CTO role (or CIO for Shared Services). And increasingly, the business in frustration has made the CIO a business person. CIOs today need to better and better aligned with the business because the rate of business change is only increasing. They need to know what matters to business success and focus resources and investment on these business capabilities. I see this as a radical redefinition of the CIO. I think it fits with your post. Do you agree?

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