Are we expecting too much out of CIOs?


I read this article on “The Three Types of CIOs: Are You and Your Company a Match?” earlier this week and while it isn’t really anything all that new within IT or even with business execs, it has spawned some interesting discussion with colleagues and clients that I thought I would share …

(If you don’t want to read the article, the one sentence overview is that companies need to think about what type of CIO they need and can pick between Strategic, Transformational or Operational.)

First, are CIOs any different than other executives in their needs for different types of leadership? It seems to me that the three camps Curran describes could apply to CEOs as well as many other executive positions. I suppose you could attempt to make a case that IT organizational strategies change more often than their business strategies, requiring a new type of leader with each major shift, but I think I’d argue the opposite if forced to debate it …

Second, is this need for different types of CIOs at different times the reason that the average tenure of a CIO is only 18 months? If the answer to #1 is no and CIOs deal with more of a roller coaster than their businesses, then this could be a logical conclusion. But with my answer to #1, I’d say the reasons for their short tenure go back to other factors, including the average CIO’s capability gaps and the ongoing misunderstandings between IT organizations and their business partners.

Finally, is it unfair to expect a CIO to have all these capabilities? No! Leadership theory says that there is a natural preference for leadership, but if someone has reached the CIO level, and I’m not talking about an IT director of a small little organization here where you might have to make the tradeoff to afford someone or even find someone who would stay happy in the position, if they are working at a large company and responsible for both strategy and execution, they have to have all these qualities! Of course they can and should supplement themselves with strong lieutenants and/or consultants to help them, but a strong leader can seemingly effortlessly switch between these different modes and should be able to last more than 18 months. I think that’s core to the definition of a good leader, IT or otherwise.

One more note, one of the comments on the article referenced this State of the CIO study from the CIO Executive Council. If you are interested in this topic, it is definitely worth a skim. I found it particularly interesting that most Operational CIOs (what they call Function Heads) and Strategic CIOs were male but twice as many Transformational CIOs were women versus men.