1. Deciding with speed and conviction
No leader makes the perfect decision every time, but high-performing CIOs are decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with more conviction. They do so consistently—even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains.
Even a wrong decision can be better than no decision at all. A bad decision is often better than a lack of direction. Most decisions can be undone, but you have to learn to move with the right amount of speed.
You can’t wait for perfect information. It is good to ask two questions: First, what’s the impact if I get it wrong? And second, how much will it hold other things up if I don’t move on this?
2. Engaging for impact.
Once a course is set, leaders need buy-in from employees and other stakeholders. Strong performers balance keen insight into their stakeholders’ priorities with an unrelenting focus on delivering business results. It starts with an understanding of stakeholders’ needs and motivations, and then get people on board by driving for performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation.
One approach is to build a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board. Identify the detractors and their concerns, and then think how to redirect energy of resistance and channel it toward something positive. Make it clear to people that they’re important to the process and they’ll be part of a win. At the end of the day, be clear that you’re making the call and you expect them on board.
Don’t invest energy in being liked or protecting your team from painful decisions. Instead, gain the support of your colleagues by instilling confidence that you will lead the team to success, even if that means making uncomfortable or unpopular moves. A critical capability of high-performing leaders is willingness to engage in conflict.
When tackling contentious issues, leaders who are good at engagement give everyone a voice but not a vote. They listen and solicit views but do not default to consensus-driven decision making.
3. Adapting proactively.
You know you have to divide your attention among short-, medium-, and long-term perspectives, but adaptable leaders spend significantly more of their time—as much as 50%—thinking about the long term.
This long-term focus makes leaders more likely to pick up on early signals. Highly adaptable leaders regularly plug into broad information flows: They scan wide networks and diverse sources of data, finding relevance in information that may at first seem unrelated to their businesses. As a result, they sense change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it.
Adaptable leaders also recognize that setbacks are an integral part of changing course and treat their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.
Setbacks are an integral part of changing course and mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow. Successful leaders recognize where and why they come up short and can give specific examples of how they tweaked their approach to do better next time.
4. Delivering reliably.
The ability to reliably produce results is possibly the most powerful of the four essential CIO behaviors. Employees trust predictable leaders.
A key practice is setting realistic expectations up front. In their first weeks on the job reliable CIOs resist the temptation to jump into execution mode. They dig into budgets and plans, and engage with executives, employees, and customers to understand expectations. At the same time, they rapidly assess the business to develop their own point of view on what’s realistic and work to align expectations with that.
Reliable CIOs also score high on organizational and planning skills. They established business management systems that included a cadence of meetings, dashboards of metrics, clear accountability, and multiple channels for monitoring performance and making rapid course corrections. Most important, they surrounded themselves with strong teams.
The single most common mistake among first-time CIOs is not getting the right team in place quickly enough. The stakes are high and the misses obvious. The successful ones move decisively to upgrade talent. They set a high bar and focus on performance relevant to the role rather than personal comfort or loyalty—two criteria that often lead to bad calls.
Leadership success is not a function of unalterable traits or unattainable pedigree. Nor is there anything exotic about the key ingredients: decisiveness, the ability to engage stakeholders, adaptability, and reliability. While there is certainly no “one size fits all” approach, focusing on these essential behaviors will improve a leader’s chances of succeeding in the role.