Mark McDonald

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Mark P. McDonald
GVP EXP
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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Is it time for CIOs to lead from the front?

by Mark P. McDonald  |  September 21, 2010  |  4 Comments

The question revolves around the role of the CIO on the executive team. Leading from the front describes a CIO that is proposing, encouraging and challenging their enterprise to take advantage of new opportunities, often ones created by technology innovation. Leading from the front is in contrast to leading from the back where CIOs contribute through working behind the scenes to deliver business strategies at speed and scale.

It’s a good question to consider given changing economic conditions and the potential of emerging technologies such as mobility, analytics, location based services, context computing, cloud and software as a service. These changes all require leadership. The question is from whom.

While the CEO may be able to lead from the front by making demands on the executive team, successful CIOs lead from the front by helping their peers shape business opportunities to take advantage of technology and its capabilities. They show what is possible, express it in business terms and measures, all in an effort to they encourage their peers to have the confidence to adopt new ways of working.

Ideally the entire executive team would lead. However there is always someone who has to go first. The case can be made that today’s challenges requires the unique perspective and capability of the CIO to propose, encourage and challenge the enterprise to seize opportunities and take action to address performance issues.

Here is why?

Economic conditions require a focus on generating revenue, cash and productivity. Technology plays an increasing part in each of these areas with digital channels providing new products and services that create revenue, using information to replace inventory and time to free up cash and greater collaboration tools to raise productivity.

Technologies such as full mobile computing, context computing, analytics and new technology platforms require CIO leadership as they each have the potential to change products, services and workforce productivity. A common example is providing applications via smart phones to support sales force productivity.

Delivery technologies such as virtualization, cloud computing and software as a service are changing IT economics and service levels. These are areas where their direct responsibility enables them to be directive in their leadership style.

CIOs have a leadership role in the enterprise. Effective leaders know that how they play that role changes based on the context and challenges they face personally, as the leader of IT and a leader in the business. Often that context calls for leading from behind, where IT contributes by brining speed of execution and scale of operation to enterprise strategies and plans.

On other occasions, CIOs need to get to the forefront and work with their peers to show them what is possible. Given the combination of economic and business challenges along with emerging technologies it may be time for CIOs to reconsider their leadership posture.

4 Comments »

Category: CIO Leadership Strategic planning Strategy Technology     Tags: , , , , ,

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jack Santos   September 21, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I am glad you defined the two options, because I would have defined them very differently.

    What you described as “leading from behind” I would have described as not leading at all, or leading (just) IT. Any CIO that is focused that way (based how you characterized the role), will not last (or is not doing his company any favors). Those are just the table stakes to get in the game.

    Your definition of “leading from in front” is what I would have actually characterized as leading from behind, as long as the emphasis by the CIO was a business partnership – working closely with executive suite peers, and making sure they look good. I like the way you said it “helping their peers shape business opportunities to take advantage of technology and its capabilities. They show what is possible, express it in business terms and measures, all in an effort to they encourage their peers to have the confidence to adopt new ways of working.”

    IMHO “Leading from the front” is where the CIO is taking a much more active role in business issues, and may even (in the past, now, or eventually) have business areas report to him. Many CIOs have taken this tact and become CAOs or CEOs. It could be more contentious, certainly more competitive, and the CIO may even view themselves as “first among equals”. But it is sometimes what it takes to lead the organization. Often times these are CIOs that come into the role with a broader business background. A CIO that leads from the front is betting his/her career (almost exclusively) on his/her judgment, and sees the need for technology/business strategy that his/her peers may not. No guts no glory.

    All three approaches, as you point out, are situational. But I would contend a CIO that doesn’t view themselves as a change agent is not a CIO; and leading from behind versus in front is a tactic to make that change happen. Your “behind” definition is too passive. As CIOs we should raise the ante!

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