Discover Performance

HP Software's community for IT leaders // May 2013

CIOs must lead as mentors, develop ‘soft skills’

A top tech recruiter says today’s IT leaders need to nurture the next wave to better serve the enterprise.


CIOs and technology professionals are not grooming the next generation of technology leaders, according to executive recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. Failing to mentor direct reports and instill “soft” interpersonal/leadership skills means tomorrow’s IT leaders won’t be able to relate directly with lines of business—a problem already for today’s crop of CIOs.

Shawn Banerji
Managing Director Shawn Banerji says Russell Reynolds has been “seeing a precipitous change in the expectations that the business and key business stakeholders have” for IT departments and therefore the CIOs/CTOs who lead them. Tech leaders know they must build highly competent organizations—but have been neglecting some key business requirements for soft skills, and failing to adequately mentor the next wave of leadership.

A Russell Reynolds study, “Rethinking People Leadership in IT,” offers some eye-opening insights, including the fact that CIOs cite people skills as most important to the success of the function—and as most in need of improvement among their teams. Discover Performance asked Banerji to tell us more about the reasons behind the dearth of IT leadership and mentoring, the changing role of the CIO, and what management style enables effective succession.

Q: When did soft skills become so critical for the CIO role?

Shawn Banerji: It’s been more of an evolution than a revolution. I think people realized as far back as a decade ago that to be an effective CIO, you needed to have strong partnering skills, communication skills and, perhaps most importantly, exceptional influencing skills … but the real change happened as recently as 18 months ago, maybe two years.

What you saw for the better part of the last decade is this paradigm of CIO leadership as highly functioning business operator or the general manager of functional utilities. That meant you had to have good communication skills—to be able to speak to the business and be a good partner, a good collaborator, a consummate process leader, and to be able to deploy and implement successful programs and projects that support the business. You had to be able to lead an effective team, [be it] your staff or key service providers. That was what we described as the general manager of the functional utilities, or the “operator CIO.” That is no small task, particularly in complex, multi-line global businesses.

But about 18 months ago, that began to change. That wasn’t good enough anymore. With the emergence of big data, the on-demand world that we live in and that will become increasingly prevalent going forward, the expectation of IT and the CIO is, “I want it now, I want it exactly how I want it, and it had better be cost-effective.” That created an added dimension of the CIO as a businessperson as well as a functional technologist. This real balancing act came into play where—if you look at just about every organization that’s done a great job of capturing data and information assets—the business looked at the CIO and said, “As the driver, owner, and steward of these resources, we expect you to be able to much more effectively aggregate, productize, and monetize them.”

Q: So today’s CIO must build strong ties across the entire business due to changing technology needs.

SB: Show me the CFO who is effectively able to run a SarbOx-compliant business that doesn’t have an outstanding CIO partner. The CIO-CFO relationship has been a key one, and we envision that it will continue to be a key one. That said, we’re now seeing—because of things like data and analytics—the emergence of new critical relationships that may become, over time, even more important than the traditional CIO-CFO relationship, such as with the chief marketing officer.

The marketing organization is saying, “We want to have true customer insight. How do we go about doing that?” If CIOs don’t have the ability or appetite to project themselves into that conversation, they risk being marginalized. Because vendors these days will go directly to the user—the chief marketing officer, the head of sales, the head of client services—and say, “I’ve got a SaaS-based service here, and you can pay me X-per-head licensing. I’ll host this for you; you can get it on your desktop, you can get it on your phone, wherever you want, whenever you want. And oh, by the way, you don’t have to deal with those guys down in IT that are always telling you ‘no.’”

Q: Making an end-run around the Dept. of No, as it were …

SB: Absolutely they are. And you know what? If I was in their position, I would be doing the same thing. You’re seeing the lines of delineation between what was historically the domain of IT and what was the domain of business really blurring. If the CIO or equivalent cannot continue to participate in a meaningful way, by demonstrating real value—you can’t be at the table just because you want to be at the table—if you don’t do that, the world will move and the next thing you know, you’re going to be running corporate systems and managing a vendor who’s running your infrastructure, and the job isn’t going to be nearly as interesting as it could be.

Some CIOs understand this and are stepping up to the plate, seeking to acquire the skills. They know they may be an incredibly effective general manager of the functional utility—that’s a big job and it’s a hard job—but if they’re going to participate in the commercial dialog of the future, they must continue to do those things and they need to acquire these other skills. And the next generation has to be able to look up and say, “I see where my CIO is being marginalized and where some of those gaps are. I need to develop those attributes and competencies so that I can effectively compete for the top job.”

This is the best time to be a CIO. At the same time, it’s fraught with some real challenges [regarding] the marginalization of the role if you don’t get it right. What the survey shows us is that most organizations do a lousy job of developing the competencies that ultimately lead to having a successful CIO.

Q: Your report showed that few CIOs are helping their direct reports get the right people skills—only 20 percent. What’s behind the low number?

SB: Many organizations find technology functions to be somewhat enigmatic: “How do we put together a development program for these people? Is it really about making them more technically proficient?” They don’t understand that it’s not like a training program where you take C++ people and train them to become .Net people.

We’re talking about leadership and exposing people to the business in a way that will allow them to grow and develop the commercial skills so that, as they move into senior roles, they understand the desired outcome and are able to more effectively collaborate with their partners to deliver against those mandates. A lot of organizations don’t understand what a holistic development path is for “technical resources.” Take a look at the rise in professional development programs for technology workers at universities: Columbia University’s masters in technology program; NYU has one, Berkeley has one. They’re cropping up all over the place, because organizations have typically been flummoxed by how to go about building programs for IT leaders. …

[But] going to a two-week program at Columbia University, no matter how outstanding the program, without a culture of continuous development in that organization, it won’t stick or be effective. You have to give people the opportunity to apply knowledge in a practical manner, knowing that a certain percentage of them will not succeed.

Q: So how does a current or aspiring CIO overcome the skills/mentorship gap?

SB: It’s so situational; it’s so personal. Being a great leader—developing the various attributes and competencies that comprise being a great leader—is first. That includes being a good listener, exercising empathy, honesty, and personal and institutional integrity. How we lead in business is changing dramatically. We are quickly moving away from the traditional top-down leadership construct to a much more collaborative construct. That’s central to leadership success. You cannot manage the millennials the same way that you manage baby boomers. Their covenant with work—how they view it, how they do it—is totally different than that of the baby boomers or Generation X or Y. Technology is so pronounced in how these people go about doing what they do. You better figure out how to stop being Dr. No and be Dr. Know. After leadership comes technical proficiency, and then business acumen. That’s the holy trinity. And that’s for anyone, whether you are in the job today or aspirational.

Shawn Banerji is a managing director serving the global technology sector of Russell Reynolds Associates, a search and assessment firm for senior-level IT executives. For more perspectives on IT leadership, subscribe to the Discover Performance newsletter.



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