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CIOs must lead, mentor—or get out of the way

Alec_Wagner on ‎06-07-2013 02:48 PM

Russell Reynolds Associates recently surveyed nearly 1,000 IT leaders worldwide, and the resulting report (“Rethinking People Leadership in IT”) includes some startling insights about IT leadership, mentoring and the changing role of the CIO. After reading the report, I caught up with Shawn Banerji, managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, who says it’s a brave new world for CIOs and CTOs.


“The days of saying—‘I’m an IT guy with a pretty good personality, the businesspeople like me, and that’s what allows me to rise up and separate myself from the rest of the propeller-heads’—are over,” Banerji proclaims. “You must be a terrific businessperson.” Part of being a terrific businessperson includes the ability to lead and mentor IT staff, helping them develop people skills. Interestingly, the RRA report found that IT leaders ranked people skills as most important to the success of the function—and as most in need of improvement among their teams.


To understand how the CIO role has evolved, Banerji suggests looking back about 15 or 20 years ago, when the term “CIO” was new in most enterprises. That changed about ten years ago, when “people were getting wise [to the fact that] CIO gigs are really good jobs: They’re high-profile, they pay a lot, and you don’t have to be a hardcore techie to do them,” he says. “It’s about business acumen [and] people leadership, with a measure of technical acumen. Some of the greatest technologists I’ve met would make horrible CIOs; their passion is much more for the technology than it is the business outcome. That’s been the evolution.”


Despite that evolution, Banerji notes that survey data shows “most organizations do a lousy job of developing the competencies that ultimately lead to having a successful CIO.” IT has historically been a bit of a “stepchild function in many organizations” as he sees it. “It’s been viewed as cost center or something that’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and [companies] haven’t invested accordingly in people development.” While there are best-in-class companies with internal development programs—what Banerji calls “academy” companies, pointing out GE as an example—that make significant investment in people development, including those in IT, “most places don’t do that. They may have it for their HIPOs [high-potential employees] or the people in marketing, but technology in many places continues to be a stepchild.”


Now, Banerji’s firm is seeing a precipitous change in the expectations that the business and key business stakeholders have for the technology function, and correspondingly, for the leader of the technology function. “IT is so fundamental to every single business,” Banerji says, “and because the expectation is rising, people at the board level are asking, ‘Who is our CIO and where do we find the next one? Where do we find an individual who balances technical proficiency with leadership and commercial vision?’ It’s a tough combination to find in any one person.” In Banerji’s opinion, smart companies should mentor current IT staff to ensure smooth succession of the CIO/CTO role. “If you can build a strong internal pipeline, you’ll have people who are loyal to your organization, as those programs typically engender loyalty because of the investment that it connotes. You’ve got someone who is also much more likely to be a great cultural fit with your organization versus someone who could be incredibly capable from the outside but [unable to cross from] one culture to the other.”


For the full interview, see CIOs must lead as mentors, develop ‘soft skills’ at Discover Performance.


Related: How CIOs can overcome contradictory demands

Understanding (and escaping) ‘The CIO Paradox’

CIOs must lead as mentors, develop ‘soft skills’

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About the Author


Alec Wagner is a longtime writer & editor, enterprise IT insider, and (generally) fearless digital nomad.

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