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Headhunter dismisses 'rock star CIOs,' extols corporate values

Shawn Banerji cringes when he hears someone called a “rock star CIO.”

“I can’t stand the term,” he said during a recent phone call from his offices in New York City. “The CIO job or equivalent is bigger than any one person, and it’s been going that way for a long time,” he said.

Banerji is the managing director of the technology officers practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, the executive search firm. We touch base a couple times a year to trade information on technology trends. He tells me what companies are looking for in IT executive talent.

Look behind the curtain at companies with dynamic CIOs, Banerji said  — a Dana Deasy at JP Morgan Chase, formerly CIO at BP; or Eash Sundaram at Jet Blue. “What you’ll see is a team of people who work together exceptionally well, who understand their roles and goals, and have a terrific leader who’s able to ensure that people are in the right place and properly empowered — that’s how you get the best results.”

Moreover, talk to so-called rock star CIOs, he said, and most will tell you their success is not about them but about surrounding themselves with excellent people.

“Do you think Tom Brady would be half the success he is if he did not have an organization behind him — coaching staff, receivers, lineman, all those people?” Banerji said, with a nod to SearchCIO’s Boston base.

“This is a guy who succeeds no matter what the changing parts are, because they have a great system in place in Foxboro.” If something happens, the organization is able to reach down to the next level on its bench and bring up another capable person. So too, with IT organizations.

(His sports analogy, made a couple weeks before the fateful matchup at Mile High, indeed shows that a rock star is still just one member of a team.)

Corporate values vs. corporate culture

Besides a deep bench, great CIOs often have another thing going for them, Banerji said: They work for companies that live by a set of core corporate values.

Not culture, mind you — values.

“Culture is tribal. Culture is esprit de corps, the tenure of your daily interactions,” Banerji said. The same company can have many subcultures. Marketing has its culture, IT another, the New York office has a different culture from the Boston office. And that’s perfectly OK, he said.

But cultural independence shouldn’t be mistaken for core corporate values.

“Values transcend function, they transcend geographies and times zones and business lines. They are the irrefutable tenets companies put forward to define who they are,” he said. It could be the corporate philosophy revolves around integrity, or creativity, or putting the client first. “But whatever the corporate values, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the Mumbai office in finance or in the New York office in marketing, they are the things you all have to embrace.”

At Russell Reynolds, people call it living the Lucite, he said, because the values that founder Russ Reynolds infused in the firm often show up behind plastic on a lot of people’s desks and in conference rooms. “Russ believed that if you don’t have a core set of values, you can never create a company. He was a little old school that way, but on to something, I think,” Banerji said.

 Email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or find her on Twitter @ltucci.