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Do you have that special something of an innovation leader?

I’m pretty sure there isn’t a CIO around who hasn’t asked himself at some point or another if he has what it takes to do the job. Heck, there’s probably not a sentient person on the planet who hasn’t wondered at times if he is up to the task. On these occasions, our tendency is to look inward for the answer. Am I smart enough, tough enough, patient enough? Oh, shoot, am I good enough for this? But it just may be that it’s the ability to look outward that really counts — at least when it comes to being an IT innovation leader.

That’s been the experience of Roger Roberts, a partner in McKinsey & Co.’s Silicon Valley office, and leader of the firm’s IT Strategy service. Roberts is talking about new IT innovation models at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium on May 18. I interviewed him for our ongoing CIO Innovators series.

Could Roberts tell me what characteristics IT innovation leaders tend to possess?

“I think the most important,” Roberts said, “is that they can easily place themselves in the shoes of different customers and stakeholders around the technology function.” Instead of describing a problem from the “supply side of IT,” innovation leaders can look at the problem from the “demand side,” he explained. He went further in his characterization: “The ability to adopt other perspectives and to truly empathize with both customers and business leaders, I think, is often the grounding for being able to release their agendas in IT and find ways to really solve problems on behalf of their stakeholders.”

It’s funny. This idea of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes as the key to being an innovation leader has come up a lot recently, in one form or another. Bill Wray, CIO at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, was saying much the same thing when he explained in an interview that his approach to innovation was less about big software than about careful observation. He dispatches his IT team to sit side by side with frontline employees and find technology solutions (the cheaper the better) to improve their jobs — or as he put it, to make them “happier.” In fact, employee happiness is one of three criteria he uses as his yardstick for success. He referred to his team as therapists.

The view of the innovation leader as empathetic certainly doesn’t jibe with the stereotype of the single-minded, hard-charging business or military or political leader (Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton and Barack Obama are two notable exceptions, in my view). It’s closer to what I believe is the mental habit of great novelists and some visual artists. I remember hearing that Dickens would take the part of every character as he was writing — actually speak in their voices as he composed, acting out each person’s life. I think it’s a frame of mind that probably a lot of CIOs — with their having to take an end-to-end view of the company — would be wise to cultivate.

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