CIOs play a more direct role in board-level priorities, so it is only natural that their leadership will be more scrutinized.
By William Macaux and Suzanne Bates
The role of the CIO has been changing over the past decade. It’s becoming a more essential part of the C-suite, and CIOs have become more critical contributors to corporate strategy and governance.
On the one hand, this change is driven by new problems, such as high visibility data breaches and regulatory demands for tightening data security. However, there is also growing recognition of how vital data use is for the financial and nonfinancial functions of the enterprise. And paradoxically, just as these demands make the world of IS more complex, CIOs are striving to simplify access to and use of technology.
The raised profile of CIOs is mirrored in January 2015 survey results, which indicate a continued trend of more CIOs reporting directly to the CEO (44%), and more CEOs (64%) consulting their CIOs on strategy. It also found that CIOs are more often on the executive committee (64%) today, suggesting that they do indeed have “a seat at the table.” Of course, these considerations prompt us to ask, “How will they use their position and influence now that they are at the table?” And still other questions arise.
With this elevated profile and visibility, CIOs play a more direct role in board-level priorities, so it is only natural that their leadership will be more scrutinized. The same kinds of expectations that stakeholders have for other members of top management will be applied to them. Stakeholders may predictably and properly wonder “Are they ready and able to play a role on this ‘larger stage’?” Thus arises the question of executive presence.
Leadership and Executive Presence
Interestingly, a 2013 industry survey found that CIOs reported leadership as their most important “personal priority for success.” It had replaced business understanding, which presumably remains important, but perhaps this shift in emphasis should not be too surprising given the changes we’ve discussed. In any case, it prompts reflection of leadership and the kind of leadership that stakeholders expect of someone on that larger stage. As we consider this question of leadership further, it will take us quite naturally into a consideration of executive presence and what it means for today’s CIO.
To begin this course of reflection, we might note that much of what we learn about leadership comes by simply observing others and through informal conversation with those more experienced and practiced than we are. But when it comes to something like executive presence–something so all-encompassing, nuanced and intuitive–it’s difficult for even the most perceptive and fluent leaders to offer as much specific and actionable advice as they or we might like.
The complexity of the phenomenon of executive presence makes it an elusive topic to adequately address using traditional models of leadership development. We catch elements of it in our competency models and in our structured processes for reviewing talent. But capturing the whole has been difficult. And it is our opinion that it is difficult–even for very well-educated professionals–for a reason.
Indeed, soon after pursuing research on the topic, we became quite conscious of what makes executive presence challenging to define, describe and address. First, it is called executive presence because it is a kind of presence specific to the role of a senior leader, someone who must get things done through others, often through layers of others who may reside within and outside one’s own span of control.
Second, we found that this kind of presence is essentially a social-organizational phenomenon. It arises as an issue when executives are stepping onto a larger stage, facing a diverse set of stakeholders, whose interests and aims do not always align. Nevertheless, the CIOs in this position must often ask them to undertake difficult tasks for a purpose that may not be entirely clear to them.
Third, while CIOs are in this highly visible role–one might say “fishbowl”–they are even more at risk of having their meaning and message misinterpreted. Like it or not, their every move, gesture, word and statement is subject to scrutiny, especially when the stakes are high. Often those making judgments and forming impressions of them do so on precious little information. Communications is a challenge.
Fourth, in such a social-organizational role levels of stress and strain can grow quickly, outstripping the CIO’s current readiness to cope and respond as well as he or she may like. Knowing one’s audience and stakeholders is a challenge, but knowing oneself is every bit as crucial. Only with this insight is one able to self-manage effectively. And marshaling the stamina and resilience requires self-care.
Finally, what makes executive presence difficult to nail down is its breadth. As we compiled descriptors used to characterize executive presence, we found it was not simply qualities of mind and personality people looked for in CIOs. They cared deeply about character, things like integrity and humility. They looked for indications of substance like wisdom and vision, but also the ability to connect (resonance). In terms of style, they wanted an active, energetic presence that engaged everyone and got tough jobs done.
William Macaux, Ph.D., is the senior vice president of Executive Development for Bates, a global coaching and executive development firm.
Suzanne Bates is CEO and founder of Bates, a global coaching and consulting firm that helps leaders influence the world.
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