Clarity, Honesty, and Steadfastness

min read

Don’t expect a lot of consistency if you ask CIOs whom they should report to.

Is reporting to the President (or Chancellor / CEO) necessary to be effective as CIO? Some CIOs I know aspire to report to a President because of the perceived credibility and political heft that comes from reporting to the top. Others I know say that it only needs to be one of the three primary C-level executives (President, Provost, or CBO/CFO/COO) but not necessarily the President. The latter view is one that I tend to agree with. Reporting to one of the three chief executives helps to ensure that the CIO is positioned to weave IT strategy and facilitate IT operations effectively throughout the entire organization, consistent with the organization’s unique culture and the CIOs established credibility (which is probably the biggest long-term driver of CIO effectiveness).

I do believe that it is vital that CIOs have some regular face time with the President, but not just for the reasons you might think. Serving as a University President is one of the more demanding jobs that there is, and being around a good one will teach you more about leadership than you will ever find in any book. Over the past ten years I have been fortunate to have been around three of the best: Robert Gates at Texas A&M, Andrew Benton at Pepperdine, and Michael Adams at the University of Georgia. My time with them has taught me three important things about leadership that are vital to being effective as a CIO.

  • Clarity matters. Good leaders are ones who can communicate a vision, strategy, and set of goals in clear and concise terms that let each and every employee know their role and responsibility in supporting the effort. When doing so leaders find it much easier to quickly change the strategic direction of any organization whether large or small. In our fast changing world being a change agent is a regular part of a CIO's job.
  • Honesty is expected. IT is a critical function for any organization and IT operations are many times fraught with difficulty and risks. In communicating about challenges, opportunities, and risks, the glass is never half-empty or half-full; there are only facts and honest appraisals of those facts. Learning how to sit one-on-one with a President and have a frank conversation – whether it is about discussing risks or delivering bad news – is a rite of passage for every CIO.
  • Steadfastness is required. Exercising leadership is about creating context by convening conversations about mission, strategy, and goals, collecting data and accepting the wisdom of others, making decisions, and then sticking with them – even when they prove to be unpopular. Effective leaders strive for consensus without insisting on it, while not being stubborn or inflexible. A good CIO knows how to do both.

All CIOs finds themselves faced with challenges that require clarity, honesty, and steadfastness. Being around a campus President is one of the best ways to learn how to exercise leadership over large organizations, and these traits matter. Developing them is crucial for any CIO who desires to sit at the executive table or keep their seat once they have earned it.