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Leadership qualities of CIOs who do big things

Why do some CIOs have a big impact on their companies and others don't? A recent study lays out the leadership qualities that make all the difference.

CIO Jim Whalen has been a people-pleaser for as long as he can remember. More often associated with the female gender -- and frequently called out as a trait that needs fixing -- people-pleasing, I'd wager, rarely tops the list of the leadership qualities of powerful business executives. That doesn't seem to have slowed down Whalen, who oversees IT strategy at Boston Properties Inc., the $30 billion Boston real estate investment trust, or REIT, that was founded by mogul Mortimer Zuckerman and specializes in the kind of marquee office buildings that ooze machismo.

As reported last week by's Karen Goulart, Whalen told a gathering of Boston CIOs that his intrinsic nature to please, far from being a roadblock, informed a commitment to customer service that helped propel his 30-year career in IT. Nature cast its die, but nurture mattered too in shaping his path to becoming a leader, he said. He started helping out in the family plumbing business when he was 5 years old, developing a strong work ethic while still in elementary school. His analytical skills were developed over summers playing All Star Baseball, the popular board game that was a mid-century precursor of today's stat-driven online sports games. "I just turned 50, but my leadership style is still evolving. I'm always picking things up as I move forward," he added.

Whalen's story -- and his personal accounting of his path to leadership -- prompted me to go back and take a look at a study, published last year by University of California, Berkeley Professor James Spitze, on the "invisible factors of extraordinary success" possessed by transformative CIOs. Not that long ago, CIOs functioned mainly as supervisors of the computers that ran the payroll, general ledger and other business systems, Spitze noted. The role was largely technical, and if things went wrong, the impact was fairly limited. Today, as overseers of a company's information flows, CIOs play a major role in a business's results, and IT failures often make front-page news. Given the breadth of the CIO role, Spitze and co-researcher Judith Lee set out to answer why some CIOs exert a powerful influence on their companies -- actually changing how whole industries do business -- while so many others (an estimated 95%) "are viewed as simply managing a necessary but often annoyingly expensive service," they wrote.

Using the CIO role to change industries: The fabulous 14

Here are the people the Spitze-Lee study identified as "Renaissance CIOs," along with their employers at the time they made their mark as game-changers.

  • Rob Carter, FedEx, online shipment tracking
  • Edward G. dePaschalis, Levi-Strauss, accurate, timely finished-goods inventory data
  • Charlie Feld, Frito-Lay, real-time ordering and tracking
  • Jack Hancock, Chemical Bank, ChemNet and bank-wide interconnection
  • Max Hopper, American Airlines, SABRE system
  • Bill Kelvie, FannieMae, Desktop Underwriter
  • Dawn Lepore, Charles Schwab, Internet-based stock transactions
  • Bobby Martin, Wal-Mart, RetailLink
  • Art Money, U.S. Dept. of Defense, created DoD-wide enterprise IT, resulting in better IT security
  • DuWayne Peterson, Merrill Lynch, developed cutting-edge integrated brokerage system
  • Pete Solvik, Cisco, Web-enabled ERP, eCommerce, Internet capabilities
  • Melodie Mayberry Stewart, city of Cleveland, computer usage for underserved customers
  • Carl Wilson, Marriott International, one-stop hotel reservations; Internet in guest rooms
  • Paul Zazzera, Time Warner, IT consolidation for print and online publishing

Source: The Renaissance CIO Project: The Invisible Factors of Extraordinary Success, James Moffat Spitze and Judith J. Lee, California Management Review

Focus on the customer and other leadership qualities of 'Renaissance CIOs'

A selection committee identified 14 "Renaissance" CIOs (see the list below) for Spitze's and Lee's study. (Along with Spitze, the selection committee included Max Hopper, the author of American Airlines' SABRE system; Bruce Rogow, ex-executive vice president of Gartner Inc.; Harvey Koeppel, executive director of the Center for CIO Leadership; and Naomi Seligman, co-founder of The Research Board.) In addition to being "wicked smart," the CIOs all had made "a massive and enduring positive impact on their employer … and on their industry." Twelve questions, sent to each of the super-CIOs in advance of their in-depth interviews, elicited the following broad traits:

Personal attributes: All 14 CIOs could be described as "industrious, self-reliant/confident, honest/trustworthy, practical, a risk-taker (but a prudent one), a quick learner and an excellent communicator." Of the six management styles the authors applied -- coercive, authoritative, affilliative, democratic, pacesetting and coaching -- the authoritative style predominated.

Birth year: Most of the CIOs achieved their first major success in mid-career, between the ages of 36 and 48 -- an important data point, according to the authors. Their initial major successes came before they had become so entrenched in their careers to have become risk-averse or resistant to change.

Education: Although two-thirds of the CIOs hold advanced degrees, the authors found that lifelong learning proved a stronger factor than formal education in the success these super-CIOs had achieved.

Parental influence: Virtually the entire Renaissance cohort recalled their parents as early role models of the importance of a strong work ethic and as believers in education. Almost all the CIOs had "meaningful part-time jobs in their youth -- and many had fond recollections of those as foundational to their careers," Spitze and Lee state.

Relationships: In a new and rapidly changing field, interpersonal relationships are critical to success. All 14 CIOs had been able to attract mentors and had served as mentors themselves. They had long lists of people who had helped them along the way. They enjoyed "valued," longstanding professional relationships and made a point of surrounding themselves with "good/excellent people." The cohort all possessed "emotional intelligence." Their ability to work with a variety of people and to "marshal the collective intelligence" of the enterprise was identified in the study as critical to their success as CIOs.

Motivators: All the Renaissance CIOs were self-motivated. All could be described as "compulsive completers" with a "strong bias for action," according to the authors. When obstacles arose at "many points in their careers," they had found a way to work around them. They liked "large challenges" and worked "with energy and intellect" to meet them. Most cited both positive and negative feedback as having a valuable impact on their career.

Career actions and outside influences: Virtually all the Renaissance CIOs seemed to possess short learning curves in matters that mattered to their careers. They accepted missteps and learned from them. They proactively managed their careers, were unafraid to make a move when things dead-ended and were primed to capitalize on opportunities -- including broad "IT inflection points" -- that came along. Luck played a part as well: Most cited being in the right place at the right time – their company was growing, their CEO was supportive -- as a factor in their success. All the Renaissance CIOs completed a major project that was recognized as a "game-changer." And in all cases, the game-changing project had a direct and positive impact on the end customer.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, News Director.

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