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Are CIO leadership skills moot if the business has you pigeonholed?

Are you lacking in CIO leadership skills, or do you lack CIO leadership qualities because the business has boxed you in, pigeonholed you as the IT guy? The question came up at a private dinner for CIOs, where I was the proverbial insect on the wall. Not in so many words, but it was out there, definitely out there, attended by the kind of anxiety a conundrum like this provokes.

“Let’s say, hypothetically that you’re a CIO in a $5 billion business,” said one of the dinner guests. “Good on the left side, been there for three or four years, and typecast. The business sees you as the IT guy who keeps the infrastructure running. How do I break out of that so I can start moving to the right side?”

“Don’t get in the box in the first place,” someone at an adjacent table retorted. “Once you get in, it is hard because you have already told them what your comfort level is.”

The left side vs. right side discussion was in reference to the evening’s presentation — a discussion of The CIO Edge: Seven Leadership Skills You Need to Drive Results.

The authors tapped into the mammoth databases of executive search firm Korn/Ferry to come up with seven skills typical of really successful CIOs. The gist is that those technical, left-brain smarts might be table stakes for running a data center, but they won’t get you a seat at the table. The latter requires the right-brain skills that allow you to manage, manipulate and mesmerize people. (This press release will save you the trouble of buying the book.)

An elder-statesman CIO from a large utility company softened the blow: “Depending on the situation, it might not be worth your time and energy to make them see you in a different light.”

And?

“So quit,” he said.

With unemployment at 9.2%?

You could feel the air getting sucked out of the room, as table by table the guests pondered whether CIO leadership might be out of one’s grasp, due to one’s own half-brain nature or a pack of unnurturing business partners.

“Say that you are going to make a change,” a guy piped up. “Say, ‘I have spent the last three years on delivery and getting things in shape. And now that things are in pretty good shape, I am going to focus on other things.'”

Constructive.

“Whereas,” this guy continued, “If you just try to change without telling people why you are changing, then it is just this odd behavior.”

Now there’s a CIO with right-brain skills, I thought, joining in the relieved laughter that filled the room.

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It's possible to escape the stereotype that the IT leader is not a peer with the other senior executives. But to do this, they must exhibit the skills that the other senior executives have. For more on this, see the research we did at Santa Clara University on what these executive level skills are and how IT leaders measure up against them.
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