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The Art of CIO Success

Jun 28, 20094 mins
CareersIT Leadership

“The General is the bulwark of the Stateif the bulwark is complete at all pointsthe State will be strongif the bulwark is defectiveyhe State will be weak”- Sun Tzu

What factors influence the success of a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?  While many have commented on this topic, I place credibility on the insight of those who have experienced that level of leadership.  A June 3rd, 2009 Midwest Technology Leaders panel discussion explored the attributes critical to landing a CIO job.  Interestingly, Sun Tzu attributed many of these qualities to the leader of an army – The General.

The CIO is a “General”.  Generals are not concerned with how the weapons function or how the rank-and-file are performing.  This is the job of the lieutenants.  The General focuses on the strategic application of resources on the battlefield.  It is his/her duty to bring the plans of the sovereign (e.g. the CEO, the Board of Directors) to fruition.  Below are three principles that the CIO must employ to achieve success.

Business acumen

“The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops. The general who does not understand these, may be well acquainted with the configuration of the country, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge to practical account.” – Sun Tzu

According to John Crary, Vice President of Information Technology for Lear Corporation, “while technical knowledge is expected, business acumen is more important.”   This perspective is consistent with a 2007 Gartner survey that emphasized the importance of business skills to the CIO role.  While the CIO must understand the tactical possibilities of the infrastructure, its application to the strategy of the business is the real challenge.  An intimate understanding of the business is required to meet that challenge.

Executive character and integrity

“Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness” – Sun Tzu

Gary Desai, VP and CIO – Consumer Products Group at Honeywell Information Systems, contributed several insights on the demeanor and character of a CIO.  “The attitude and behavior of the CIO must project a grasp of business skills and understanding,” said Desai.  He cautioned the prospective CIO that while technical and business skills can get you the job, it is unproductive and unprofessional behavior that gets you fired.  Mr. Desai also stressed that a CIO must “be able to disagree with his/her peers without being disagreeable.”

Sun Tzu’s perspective is instructive because a balance must be struck between the different components of leadership.  An intelligent but untrustworthy individual would not make a successful leader, nor would an overly courageous one.  Pragmatically, that balance is dictated by the culture within which the CIO operates.

Builds strategic alliances

“We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors. We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country.”- Sun Tzu

Collaborative solutions are sometimes required to address competitive problems.  This was true during World War II when the USA formed an alliance with European forces.  The same holds for the corporate theater.  In Building Alliances Across Divisions, Maya Townsend outlines the questions that must be asked by a CIO who wishes to form an alliance.  Townsend holds that the alliance must have a business justification and that execution must reflect the core competencies of the members.  Thus, the CIO must understand both the business of the alliance members and the implications of the alliance on the competitive environment.

Sun Tzu said that a strong General is required for strategic success.  This leader acts as a powerful business champion.  If you wish to be a CIO, you must be prepared for that role.  If you are a CIO, I hope this article illuminated the importance of your contribution.


Steven F. Fox provides security guidance to ensure compliance with Federal standards and requirements as a Senior Security Architecture and Engineering Advisor for the IRS. Fox contributes to multiple working groups including the IPv6 transition team, Developer Security Testing workgroup and the Security and Privacy workgroup. He brings a cross-disciplinary perspective to the practice of information security; combining his experience as a security consultant, an IT Auditor and a systems engineer with principles from behavioral/organizational psychology to address security challenges. He is a syndicated blogger covering IT Governance, Risk Management and IT-Business fusion topics. He also volunteers his time to the Ponemon Institute and Security BSides Detroit. Follow him on Twitter - Join his LinkedIn network -