Why chief information officers (CIOs) can struggle in a leadership role

IT Leadership

Why chief information officers can struggle in a leadership role

Research by Joe Peppard, Professor, ESMT

How Chief Information Officers (CIOs) can overcome tendencies towards introversion to become successful leaders

For nearly a decade I have run an IT Leadership Program. This executive development and education program is targeted at CIOs and aspiring CIOs. Participants come from large and small organizations, both in the public and private sectors.

The philosophy driving the design of this program is that as a CIO you are, first and foremost a business leader, albeit with a special responsibility for IT. Unfortunately, from my experience, some CIOs still see themselves as leaders of an IT function and often do not acknowledge or recognize the wider remit of being a leader. Yet, even with this latter perspective, many still struggle in a leadership role. Perhaps this is why only one current CEO of a FTSE 350 company has been promoted from a CIO position.

In order to begin developing participants’ leadership capabilities, the program stresses the importance of becoming more self-aware. This means that executives are aware of their preferences, how they behave in particular situations, understand their motivations and drivers and the empathy they have, particularly in considering others’ when making decisions.

To help raise this awareness and to facilitate discussion in the classroom, a psychometric instrument called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is used. MBTI is widely used in businesses today, and assesses a person’s preferences along four dimensions: where they get energy, how they perceive the world, how they make decisions, and their lifestyle. Each has two possible positions, giving 16 types. The four dimensions of MBTI can be summarized as follows:

Extraversion (E)
Energy produced through interaction with the outer world of people and things
Where we get our energyIntroversion (I)
Energy produced through inner thoughts and reflection
Sensing (S)
Information gathered through the five senses. Focus on concrete facts and experiences that occur in the present
How we perceive the worldIntuition (N)
Information acquired as patterns and hunch. Focus on big picture, inter-relationships, meanings, and possibilities in the future
Thinking (T)
Conclusions based on logical analysis. Focus on impartiality and objectivity
How we make decisionsFeeling (F)
Conclusions based on personal values. Focus on empathy, harmony, and impact
Judging (J)
Focus on closure, predictability, planning, organization, and control
Our lifestylePerceiving (P)
Focus on adaptability, flexibility, spontaneity, and openness to new information

Having put many hundreds of participants through the program, there is a startling finding emerging from my data. Of the 16 possible types, 70 percent of CIOs fall into one particular type: ISTJs (introversion, sensing, thinking, judging). There is also consistency in the profiles of CIOs in how they perceive the world (dominance of sensing) and how they make decisions (dominance for thinking). Moreover, along the dimension of where they get their energy, 85 percent have a preference for introversion. So imagine what it might be like teaching a class full of introverts – I did have one of these!

ISTJs have a strong sense of responsibility and great loyalty to the organizations and relationships in their lives. They rely upon knowledge and experience to guide them, and pay attention to immediate and practical organizational needs. Generally preferring to work alone, they can be relied upon to fulfill commitments as stated, and on time. They would be described as practical, pragmatic, and sensible, but could also be seen as detached, inflexible, and overly serious. They strive for perfection and can be poor at delegation. They have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail.

When the demographic data of program participants has been further analyzed and correlated with observations regarding MBTI profiles, another interesting finding emerges. The vast majority of those with a preference for introversion, sensing, and thinking would categorize themselves as career IT people or IT professionals. Most have spent all, or the majority, of their career in an IT role. They also tend to have studied mathematics, physics, engineering, or computer science. While I can’t be sure, perhaps their MBTI preferences have caused them to study these subjects and select IT as a career?

Thus, they are comfortable with data and logic, favoring process, prescription, and policies. The IT discipline has a strong process orientation, with IT management frameworks, such as COBIT (a business framework for the governance and management of enterprise IT) and ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), prescribing process blueprints and best practices that organizations should adopt and implement. Even project management is dominated by methodologies, prescribing how projects to implement IT investments should be run. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise that despite the increasing role that IT is playing in business models and for customer experience, a recent study revealed the difficulty of getting some IT staff to be business-oriented and customer-facing.

Indeed, when CxOs (C-suite executives) are asked to describe a stereotypical IT executive, their descriptions usually mirrors that of the dominant MBTI profile. “Needs to get out more” is a comment I frequently hear, a reference perhaps to their introverted nature. “Can’t see the bigger picture” is another that is encountered, a possible consequence of their strong sensing preference?

So, what does this all mean? The very things that may contribute to success in a technology role can be what leads to downfall in a leadership position. People can be comfortable working in a role where there are lots of prescriptions. However, in an environment that is complex, ambiguous, and uncertain – the domain of leadership – they can struggle. To succeed in these circumstances, it demands building relationships, navigating the political landscape, using influence, and dealing with situations that can seem irrational and emotionally charged. There are no manuals or methodologies providing guidance. These messy surroundings are also the world of strategy and innovation.

What I have seen happen is that after promotion to an IT leadership position some newly appointed CIOs struggle and revert to type, that is, back to being a technologist, making technology decisions, running technology projects, and implementing IT service management processes. What they do not do, is act or behave as a business leader.

This is not to say that CIOs with a preference for introversion cannot be great business leaders. They certainly can. But first they must become aware of their own built-in preferences. Just like everybody is naturally either left-handed or right-handed, we all have other natural preferences. By working on the opposite “handedness,” CIOs, and aspiring CIOs, can develop their leadership capability. If you are naturally a right-handed person and begin writing with your left hand, it’s not going to be easy. But with practice, you get better. The same is true for being effective as someone who is promoted from within the ranks of IT to a business leadership role.