4 common CIO leadership malfunctions with advice on what you can do to overcome them, by Joe Scherrer.

4 Malfunctions of a CIO

Let’s face it. CIOs have a bit of a reputation:
  • They’re too focused on technology
  • They’re out of touch with the business
  • Maybe they’re even a little geeky and hard to work with

But the CIOs that get it understand that the job is much more about leadership than it is technology.

And strong, solid leadership is needed now more than ever. Today’s CIOs must be more than IT mechanics who fix broken systems and install new parts. Business is craving innovation and technology can play indispensable role across every significant business process and therefore drive growth and enterprise success—that is, if the CIO leads with the strategic savvy of a true executive leader.

Unfortunately, all too many CIOs malfunction when it comes to leadership. Read on to see how, and more importantly, what you can do to overcome them.

CIO Malfunction #1: Software Bug

In geek speak, a software bug is a problem in the program code that generates strange results. For CIOs, a software bug means low emotional intelligence (EQ).

EQ is the ability to perceive, evaluate, and control emotions in social situations. It becomes more and more critical the higher you go in the leadership ranks. The consequences of low EQ include poor relationships, lack of trust, and even career derailment. Research shows that in top leadership positions 4/5 of the difference between average and top performers is due to EQ. According to emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman, technical skills are not even in the top 3 when it comes to competencies that matter for senior leaders, rather EQ dominates the equation.

Quality Assurance (What You Can Do About It)

The good news is that you can implement a “software quality assurance” program to improve your EQ. The most important thing you can do is to get your EQ evaluated by a certified practioner using an assessment tool like EQi 2.0 or ESCI. Once you know where your strengths and critical weaknesses lie, work with a coach to “strengthen your strengths” and refurbish your critical weaknesses. 

CIO Malfunction #2: Syntax Error

In geek speak, a syntax error is programming code that the computer can’t understand and therefore won’t execute. The translation for CIOs: poor communication.

The ramifications for a CIO who can’t communicate effectively are legion. Productivity, quality, timeliness, results, morale—all depend on your ability to communicate well. It’s crucial for the CIO to communicate well with the boss, peers, the team, customers, and suppliers. In fact, CIOs who have good communication between themselves and their C-suite peers are four times more likely to be top performers.

Quality Assurance (What You Can Do About It)

Like EQ, you can improve your ability to communicate. Work hard to be clear with your words. Further, remember that you’re always communicating, even when you’re not talking. Always be aware of how you’re presenting yourself and of what you’re saying. Equally important is to listen closely and with empathy. Seek to understand the point of view and meaning behind the words people are speaking to you. Not only do you pick up more information that way, people will sense that you are seeking to understand them. This helps to develop trust. Always keep your communications channels open. For especially important conversations, think about what you’re going to say before you say it. Prepare your words, then practice them.

CIO Malfunction #3: Access DeniedThe_Leadership_Forge_bookcover-1

In geek speak, access denied means a user is unable to logon, boot up, or gain entry to a directory. CIOs that are unable to articulate the business value of IT are denied access to organizational decision-making.

This is the worst position for a CIO to be in. You’re shut out of the conference room, strategic debates, and resourcing discussions. The IT function becomes marginalized, secondary, or even irrelevant to the organization’s core mission. This is how other business units start buying their own systems and how the CIO ends up working for the CFO.

Quality Assurance (What Can You Do About It)

First and foremost, CIOs must speak the language of business. Conversations about margins, balance sheets, and cash flow should be as natural to the CIO as discussions about network performance, cyber security, and system uptime. The non-negotiable requirement is to absorb the business strategy and make sure IT is in lock-step with it.

Become a bona-fide business leader by broadening your horizons, taking stretch assignments, and spending time to understand your peers’ problems. If you need to upgrade your business expertise, pursue an executive MBA or a certificate in finance. Finally, don’t be afraid to weigh-in on the core issues facing the organization—challenge assumptions, offer your professional opinion, contribute to problem solving. You’re a senior leader, not part of the peanut gallery.

CIO Malfunction #4: Buffer Overflow

In Geek Speak, a buffer overflow occurs when data overwrites working memory. CIOs who suffer from buffer overflow lack planning and organizing skills.

As a result, you’re in a perpetual state of overwhelm, can’t prioritize, and are unable to provide direction and focus. Delegation is not in your vocabulary and crisis management is the order of the day. Buffer overflow is devastating for the IT team and its ability to produce results

Quality Assurance (What You Can Do About It)

Buffer overflow is often the product of old habits from the time when CIOs did technical jobs by themselves. It could also result from an exaggerated need for control or a fear of failure. More often, CIOs haven’t been taught how to plan or organize.

If you have an efficient executive assistant or secretary, you’re in luck, they can help you stay organized. If not, you need to adopt a method like that described in chapter 3 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And that’s what it’s all about: creating good habits. Like delegating, holding planning meetings, and getting regular updates. You’ll get huge points from your team for being efficient. Underpinning it all is the trust you must have in your people to get the job done, but also holding them accountable for the same.


CIOs who make the effort to fix these 4 malfunctions will find themselves ahead of the game in terms of leadership.

  • They’ll earn that seat at the decision-making table and gain the respect of their peers.
  • They’ll listen well, communicate clearly, and effectively articulate the powerful role IT plays in driving business strategy.
  • Because they know how to lead, they’ll mobilize their team to achieve meaningful and consistent results.
  • Most importantly, they’ll lead with true authenticity because of their integrity, humility, and the trust they generate. 

That’s the reputation of a strategic, savvy, and trusted CIO.

Are you ready to be one of them?

See Joe's follow up blog: "3 More Malfunctions of a CIO"

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