The Killer CIO

The Killer CIO

A new sense of professionalism in information technology creates a special brand of leader.

What makes a killer CIO? What achievements make a candidate stand out when an institution is looking for someone to lead its technology efforts at the highest levels? We asked some recently hired CIOs to reveal their most powerful trump cards. We also sought professional peer opinions, inviting the CIOs who take part in Educause's chief information officer online discussion list to say what they were proud of in their own list of accomplishments, or what they admired in other successful IT leaders. What follows is the composite portrait that emerged--you might call it "the CIO of CIOs."

The Age of Infrastructure Building seems to be over. CIOs no longer boast about having wired the campus. Instead, they focus on their success in building relationships, upward, downward, and 360 degrees. This can involve breaking new ground. One respondent established the first IT advisory group at his institution that involved executives from other areas in IT strategic planning. (Some respondents chose to remain unnamed--it seems that part of the success of the CIO sometimes depends on not taking credit for everything.)


Successful CIOs have learned to understand the broader issues that are not technology driven.

The CIO's relationships require not just sharing power, but educating others about IT issues so that they can take a meaningful part in decisions. Did you figure out the catch in that? Sometimes the executives have to be shown exactly what it is about IT that needs to be discussed at their level. So just winning entree to the top-level dialogue can be an achievement in itself.

"Earning a seat at the table is a major coup," says Greg Burris, vice president for Administration & Finance and chief information officer at Southwest Missouri State University. "When I was hired, my title wasn't 'CIO' and I was not a member of our senior-level cabinet. Now it is, and I am. Helping one's peers recognize the importance of the position is an accomplishment. When educating folks on the value of IT, it's vital for the CIO to stress the 'information' over the 'technology.' This can be a challenge since the technology is usually cool and sexy, while the information is usually boring and vital to the institution's success."

David Smallen, vice president for Information Technology at Hamilton College (NY), offers a way for CIOs to communicate persuasively with the rest of the decision-makers. They need to develop "benchmarks and other metrics that help the members of the institution clearly understand the costs and tradeoffs of different approaches to providing IT services," he says.

Others stressed that it helped if the CIO had both technical chops and the much rarer ability to interpret technical issues for less-technical people. But our CIOs have also learned that they have to spend time understanding the broader issues at their institution that are not technology driven, in order to enjoy credibility with the other top administrators. If you want a seat at the high table, you have to be able to take part in the entire conversation, not just the parts about your specialty.

"The most successful CIOs," says David Gregory, "are experts at having difficult conversations." Gregory, who is chief Information Technology officer at Colgate University (NY), explains what makes this tough: "Like it or not, a large part of being a CIO means dealing with difficult personalities: arrogant technical professionals, demanding faculty, upset office workers, and bewildered administrators. When things are going well, nobody pays attention to the technology.

"A CIO gets fewer e-mails, fewer calls, and is asked to fewer meetings," notes Gregory. "But when the network is plagued by virus attacks and e-mail or printing stops working, the CIO becomes the center of attention--mostly unwanted attention."

The most skilled CIOs can navigate through these troubled waters, focusing the technical professionals on solving the problems, satisfying the faculty and staff--without caving in to unreasonable demands--and articulating the problem and solution for the administrators.

Gregory has this advice for universities that are interviewing potential CIOs: "You'll never find this on any resume, but CIOs who can have these difficult conversations--often daily--and still come in to work each new day, should be highly sought after."

One word that came up repeatedly in describing the successful CIO was "alignment." This may be a symptom of our times--the traditional goals of IT departments have not always been in tune with overall institutional priorities, or at least have not been seen that way.

James Penrod, professor in the College of Education at the University of Memphis (TN) and a frequent writer on IT management, sees alignment as an integral part of the life cycle of every IT project. His description of the ideal CIO is one who "works to establish and facilitate an institutional project proposal, prioritization, alignment, and implementation process for all projects proposed from within the ranks of the institution."

Is it better to have a track record of expanding the role of IT and growing the technology budget and staff, or is it more apropos these days to show that you successfully managed a downturn in the face of fiscal realities?

Why not look for both? asks William Pritchard, vice chancellor and chief technology officer at Foothill-De Anza Community College District (CA). "That's what we're doing here," says Pritchard. "Despite severe budget cuts IT is still expected to do more and more. Although our cuts are closing in on 30 percent over the last two years, we've managed to expand our services (new portal and a new automated workflow process in the works) and improve customer satisfaction during that same time period."

In fact, many CIOs we contacted were rolling out new technologies and programs despite cutbacks. Frequently mentioned were distance learning, wireless networking, student ownership of computers, high-performance computing, Internet 2 initiatives, and new business and community partnerships.

Indiana State University is an institution that is actually moving forward in most of those areas simultaneously. Says CIO Ed Kinley: "While there is a tendency to draw back and become more conservative during tight budgets and changing times, I view this as a time to work aggressive through the introduction of bold steps."

It's no easy task, he admits. If such a strategy is to succeed, the CIO must develop a vision, articulate the vision, and get the institution to view the cost of the new initiatives as an investment and not as an expense. "If we believe in our strategic vision, and believe our direction will allow us to reposition the institution," says Kinley, "we must see and leverage technology as a strategic tool."

"I think any CIO knows the basic rules," says Thomas Hausmann, IT director at Bethany College (WV). "Align IT initiatives with university priorities, maintain an integrated, Web-enabled administrative system, maintain a high-quality network, hire good people, and invest in faculty development. But how we go about our tasks sets us apart."

A new sense of the profession of information technology management is emerging. Achievements and competencies are just the beginning. CIOs are expected to be in tune with the institution and its people. They are expected to make IT serve much larger purposes than merely technical ones--and they're expected to do it all with good will and good humor. These days, you earn the title of CIO one day at a time.

John Savarese is a consulting principal for Edutech International.


The CIO Report Card

Here, according to our contributors, are some key qualities that killer CIOs have in common:


  • Works well with others. Each CIO will have a personal style for keeping the channels of communication open. Thomas Hausmann, director of Information Technology at Bethany College (WV), is proud of the endorsement from a faculty member who called him "an excellent colleague and community citizen." What was behind this high praise? Hausmann, wrote the faculty member, "made himself available on every computing issue, large and small, on our campus, with a rare sense of optimism, clarity, forthrightness, and good humor."
  • Is approachable. Ronald Black thinks that one of the reasons he got his job as vice president for Information Technology and Library Services at Paul Smith's College (NY) is his record of "working collaboratively, listening effectively, being responsive to the college community, and nurturing a climate of trust and collegiality." Many contributors mentioned the importance of a sense of humor, approachableness, and a reputation for forthrightness and "walking the talk."
  • Good listener. But communication is not all about talking. The ideal CIO is open to ideas, says Mike Honeycutt, coordinator of Academic Computing at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. "Frequently, projects will come to the CIO from above, but a successful CIO must be open to ideas from the front-line workers. These employees know the systems the best, know the campus the best, and can make or break projects. Keeping these people happy by being willing to listen to their ideas and most importantly, giving them credit for the ideas is not only the right thing to do, but will make them more willing to share other ideas in the future."

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