7 habits of highly effective CIOs

Experts say focus, find strengths, build bridges, talk plainly and listen

In his best-selling book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey outlines seven practices on the path to personal and professional achievement. Covey provides the framework of consistent patterns to tackle change with advice ranging from being proactive to sharpening the saw.

Similarly, highly effective chief information officers develop their own routines and skills to increase efficiency and successfully navigate the waters of government technology management.

Through interviews with current and former CIOs, academics and analysts, seven key habits of highly effective CIOs emerged. Although managers differ greatly in personal management styles and tricks of the trade, many experts agreed on these habits as being a strong foundation for success.

1. Focus on the mission

Echoing Covey's second habit of beginning with the end in mind, many technology experts noted the need to focus on the mission. By keeping the overall goals in mind, an effective CIO can identify how technology can support the organization and impact a project's outcome.

"It's not about technology," said Bruce McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget and now president of McConnell International. "It's about what the organization is trying to accomplish. The CIOs who are effective are focused on the business goals and the mission goals. Technology is the tool they are using to help the organization meet those goals."

Similarly, highly effective CIOs have a clearly stated objective and a well-understood plan to reach that goal, experts said. Working from an explicit action plan allows a CIO to stay focused and avoid getting bogged down in the never-ending day-to-day tasks. Striking a balance between intermediate goals and the long-term outcome is tough but crucial, said Corey Booth, CIO of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"I came into this job with a definite point of view of the kinds of things I wanted to make better and a long-term vision," Booth said. "You've got to have the end in mind, but you don't want to be too long range. A 100-year strategic plan doesn't really tell you what you want to have done today."

2. Understand the organization and your role

Just as each organization is vastly different, with varying hierarchies, sizes and missions, so is the role of the CIO in each organization. To be highly effective, a CIO must have a strong understanding of the organization and how he or she fits in, experts said.

"Rather than come in and quickly turn things around, most [CIOs] ground themselves in understanding the organization, its business drivers and how decisions get made," said Dave McClure, research director at Gartner. "From that, they then stand a much better chance of striking up good win-win situations for themselves and other executives."

For many state CIOs, this means understanding the governor's agenda, said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO). An effective state CIO has a handle on the governor's goals and aligns IT objectives to define how technology can enable the governor to achieve those goals.

Tom Towberman, director of the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Executive Institute, which offers leadership programs for federal executives, said accomplishing that alignment with the organization begins with a clear understanding of the manager as a person.

For example, as with any top-level manager, CIOs should assess their strengths and weaknesses, how they interact with others and whether they have the skills to lead others. Many managers use personality inventories or questionnaires that require superiors, peers and subordinates to evaluate them, he said.

"Leadership really begins with really trying to understand yourself, understand your own values and who your role models are, then trying to see if those are consistent with your organization," Towberman said.

3. Build alliances

The CIO's reach increasingly extends beyond the tech shop, overlapping in areas such as portfolio management and acquisition, and building alliances across the organization has become a key habit for highly effective CIOs, experts said.

"Today when we talk enterprise, it's the federal government or all government," said Kim Nelson, former CIO at the Environmental Protection Agency. "Cross-boundary is more than just EPA."

CIOs have a lot of responsibility and only a little direct authority, experts said. Working with peers and managers across the organization becomes essential to successfully managing crosscutting initiatives. Other CXOs, such as the chief financial officer and the chief human capital officer, should be the CIO's closest allies, McConnell said. To do this, CIOs should carefully listen to the CXOs' priorities and concerns, while being transparent about their own goals and needs.

"They are people who care about management issues who are at the corporatewide or programwide table, as opposed to business-line owners who may not care about management," he said. "They share a common interest."

Mark Forman, a partner at KPMG and former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, advises an effective CIO to follow the money and strengthen alliances with the CFO. Budgetary decisions are often the most important, and building relationships with those in control of the money can help the CIO be an effective change agent.

4. Communicate effectively

The habit perhaps most frequently identified by experts -- the ability to communicate -- is arguably more of a skill, but it remains an attribute at the very foundation of effectiveness.

To work as a translator between the tech shop and top management, as well as a lobbyist for the organization's IT needs, an effective CIO must master the fine points of communication. And as Janet Cohen, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's CIO Institute, said, "You can't communicate too much."

To Forman, the skill of basic communications is a given, but what distinguishes a highly effective CIO is the habit of strategic communications. That is the ability to communicate the right message to the right people, elevating the CIO to the role of a leader of business transformation.

A CIO is going to have a different conversation with technical people than with senior managers, said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT. An effective CIO uses analogies and real-life examples of how technology affects the organization, Evans said.

For example, when approaching the secretary or deputy secretary about IPv6, the CIO could compare IP addresses to ZIP codes, explaining the advantages of multiple addresses and how that would benefit the organization, she said.

"It's not just talking for talk's sake," Evans said. "It's really the ability to communicate in a way that people understand your topic area and get value out of it."

NASCIO's Robinson took the habit one step further and defined it as the ability to lobby effectively and become a master in the art of persuasion.

"This is very important for CIOs because they are imposing a discipline, and they are billing [executive branch agencies] for their services," he said. "You must convince agencies it's good to proceed one way or another."

5. Listen

The companion habit to effective communications is the ability to actively listen, which several experts noted as one of the hardest habits to develop. Covey identifies this habit as seeking first to understand then to be understood.

Despite the pressures of the job, a CIO must be able to listen, pick out the important information and fully understand the matter at hand, rather than leaping to offer solutions, experts said.

"We're human; we get caught up in our own ideas," said Steve Cooper, former CIO at the Homeland Security Department. "When we react, we stop listening."

To ensure he is actively listening in key conversations, Cooper often brings along someone whose full-time job is to listen. The two can then compare notes after the meeting. Cooper said he often finds that what he thought he heard wasn't right.

He also tries to repeat important points during the initial exchange -- making sure he doesn't sound confrontational -- to confirm he fully understood the speaker.

"Then once we agree, I can give you my thoughts," said Cooper, now CIO at the American Red Cross. "Halfway through what you are saying, I am already formulating my thoughts. It's tough sometimes, particularly in the heat of pressures or time deadlines, to remember to hang in there, listen fully, and then go ahead and offer your response."

6. Trust your Team

A highly effective CIO is only as good as his or her team, and taking the time to invest in technology managers is a necessary element of success, experts said.

"In government, sometimes we don't do as good a job at showing appreciation for things that are well done," said John Gilligan, former Air Force CIO and now vice president and deputy director of SRA International's defense sector. "You want to communicate to people and reinforce them. If you can keep people motivated often through expressing appreciation, they will climb mountains."

Roger Baker, vice president of federal and civilian operations at General Dynamics and former CIO at the Commerce Department, said CIOs should reach out to their staffs, finding time to resolve any work-related issues. Furthermore, the CIO should be viewed as approachable and concerned about employees' well-being. A strong leader values his or her staff first as humans and second as employees, Baker said, and they must be treated that way.

One way to invest in the team is to "get in the habit of wandering about, crossing the hierarchical lines of the organization and talking to people on the ground level," said Fred Thompson, vice president of management and technology at the Council for Excellence in Government.

This helps connect employees with the overall mission. CIOs should constantly reassess their employees to ensure they have the right mix of people with the relevant skills, he said.

7. Be proactive

In his book, Covey identifies the first habit as being proactive. Similarly, many IT experts singled out the need to be on the cusp of new technologies and identify how technology will fit into the organization in the years ahead.

For example, Michigan CIO Teri Takai prefers regularly scheduled meetings with state agency leaders to review the agencies' projects and plans rather than waiting for an idea to surface, she said.

"I go out and visit the state agencies and sit down for an hour, two to three times a year," she said. "We are proactively involved in the business strategic practice for every agency. We are focused on their business plan, and then we can go in and talk to them about how technology can come in and make a difference."

The effective CIO is continuously examining best practices and learning how technology improves the agency's performance, what Forman described as having a "zest for breakthrough performance."

"You have to be on top of how your agency or organization performs its work," Forman said. "You have to understand the business processes and be able to take the emerging technologies and figure out what that means in the environment you are living in."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

More advice from the experts

Here are additional habits of highly effective chief information officers:

1. Get away from technology for a week or two. "You need the time to refresh and rejuvenate, and you can't do that if you are immersed in your day-to-day," said Janet Cohen, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's CIO Institute.

2. Be relevant. Most organizations are aligning information technology investments to business commitments, said KPMG partner Mark Forman. The CIO must be involved in projects that relate to the core mission.

3. Understand IT governance. Gain understanding by using the enterprise architecture, the capital planning and employee management to guide IT investments rather than using them simply for the sake of compliance.

4. Be personally engaged. "You have to make sure there are three or four things you are engaged in and everyone knows you are engaged in them, and these are things you have invested in," said Treasury Department CIO Ira Hobbs. "You have to have a theme."

5. Compartmentalize. Separate your personal feelings from your role as an IT leader. "Business is business, and personal is personal," said Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget.

-- Sara Michael

How to make a meeting work

Some information technology chiefs prefer short meetings, some prefer highly organized ones, and others want an arena for airing grievances. A chief information officer's approach to meetings can be crucial to becoming a highly effective CIO.

For Roger Baker, vice president of federal and civilian operations at General Dynamics and former CIO at the Commerce Department, most meetings should not last longer than 15 to 20 minutes, which forces managers to prioritize. Otherwise, people tend to lose interest and stray from the topic.

"You sit in so many meetings where you wonder why the meeting is dragging on," Baker said. "There are a lot of meetings where you are the senior person there, and you can drive it to a relatively quick conclusion. Not only is your time valuable," but the time of everyone sitting there is also valuable.

For the meetings she schedules, Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator of e-government and IT, follows a 30-minute rule, and each meeting is well-planned. Before sitting down, she requires that background materials on the topic be in her hands at least 48 hours in advance.

"With the amount of information that flows through here, you want to make sure people are organized," Evans said. "Time is a valuable commodity, and you have to know what your priorities are."

Wisconsin CIO Matt Miszewski takes the opposite path in meetings, trading short meetings for open-conflict meetings, in which managers are free to vent their feelings.

"We don't think in our meetings that we should be sitting back and holding our powder and not bringing up our issues," said Miszewski, president of the National Association of State CIOs. "We don't have to worry about fostering buy-in because that commitment comes from the open conflict. People feel like they have had their chance to bring up their issues and be heard."

There are no wallflowers in his weekly meetings, Miszewski said. In fact, one staff member is responsible for minding the conflict. If a manager appears to be quietly stewing over an issue, the staff member will ask the person to speak up.

"My staff thinks I am crazy," he said. "But we have been doing it successfully for about a year and a half."

-- Sara Michael


  • Defense
    Soldiers from the Old Guard test the second iteration of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) capability set during an exercise at Fort Belvoir, VA in Fall 2019. Photo by Courtney Bacon

    IVAS and the future of defense acquisition

    The Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System has been in the works for years, but the potentially multibillion deal could mark a paradigm shift in how the Defense Department buys and leverages technology.

  • Cybersecurity
    Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lora Ratliff)

    Mayorkas announces cyber 'sprints' on ransomware, ICS, workforce

    The Homeland Security secretary announced a series of focused efforts to address issues around ransomware, critical infrastructure and the agency's workforce that will all be launched in the coming weeks.

Stay Connected