Leading IT: On Being a Smart CIO

Smart - main image


Not all CIO’s are equal.

There are topnotch CIO’s that really know their stuff.

There are struggling CIO’s that are not quite yet up to par.

And of course there are all different flavors and variations of CIO’s in-between.

The type of CIO that seems especially adept at being a CIO is one that is a treasure to the profession and is highly successful in the CIO role.

What makes the difference between a so-so CIO and the “right stuff” CIO?

I assert that the key is being a Smart CIO.

A Smart CIO is the best kind of CIO and achieves success both within their firm and in the larger community of the CIO profession. I have purposely chosen to use the word “smart” and I realize that it might rankle some that find the word “smart” to be abrasive, elitist, or otherwise objectionable. There are those that might prefer to use a word like the Shrewd CIO, the Savvy CIO, the Alert CIO, or maybe even the Bright CIO (do they light up a room?). Those are certainly feasible alternatives, but I still prefer the word “smart” as will be explained next.

Admittedly the word “smart” is loaded with potential baggage and could be interpreted in a negative way. I’d like to carefully and thoughtfully unpack the word “smart” and offer a detailed explanation for why I think it is a suitable means of denoting the key to being a topnotch CIO.

Put aside for the moment any preconceived notion of what the word “smart” means to you. Let’s have an open dialogue about what the word could mean and how it applies to CIO’s. If at the end of this discussion you are still frothing about the use of the word “smart” then at least you’ll know what I intended by its use and you are welcome to come up with some other phrasing as you might so wish to do.


Take a look at Figure 1 to see some of the highlights of what I’ll be covering in this discussion about the Smart CIO.


Smart - Figure 1 lessons


The word “smart” usually denotes someone with high intelligence.

I am avoiding using the phrase “Intelligent CIO” because the word “intelligence” tends to have an even more complicated and confounding image than does the word “smart.” There is an ongoing debate for example about the use of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests and whether an IQ test actually measures intelligence or not. For many, the notion of being intelligent refers to a strictly cognitive kind of notion, having an ability to do hard math or have deep thoughts.

There have been many backlashes against the use of IQ tests and the pigeon holing people based on seemingly questionable and artificial ways of gauging intelligence. There are also arguments that being intelligent does not necessarily translate into intelligent behavior. In other words, you might be very intelligent, but only within your own head, and when trying to convert that intelligence into something useful or practical in the real-world that one does not have to directly correlate to the other.

Some also argue that there is a book learning kind of intelligence, the learned type that you use in school, versus a contrasting seat-of-the-pants intelligence. The seat-of-the-pants intelligence is intelligence gleaned from everyday interaction with the world around us. Those that try to portray extremes would say that the book learning intelligence is often a kilter of the real-world and generally pie-in-the-sky kind of intelligence.

Meanwhile, those that have the seat-of-the-pants intelligence are seen as real-world oriented and practical, but then criticized as not being able to see a bigger picture and perceive the world beyond their own experience base. The presumed advantage of the book learned intelligent is that the person is infused with knowledge far beyond what they themselves could garner in just their own limited day-to-day interactions of the world.

This brings us around to an important underlying tenant of being a Smart CIO, namely, smartness here means that you have a strong ability to acquire knowledge and skills, and then be able to act upon those acquisitions.

The fields or domains underlying the aspects of being a CIO are continually changing, whether it is the technology that CIO’s deal with, or the business practices and approaches that they need to know and utilize. A Smart CIO is one that is able to acquire the knowledge and skills and keep the acquisition ongoing for both the technical realm and the business realm.

It is not enough though to merely or only just obtain the knowledge and skills, since you need to also be able make use of that knowledge and apply those skills in a demonstrative way. A Smart CIO is more than a cornucopia collection of mental capabilities; they also act upon those capabilities and leverage their mental capabilities to the hilt.

This notion of smartness also encompasses having sound judgment. We probably all know seemingly highly intelligent people that at times appear to exercise very poor judgement. This is again another reason I am avoiding saying the Intelligent CIO and instead saying the Smart CIO. A Smart CIO exercises good judgment. Does this mean that the Smart CIO is perfect and always exhibits sound judgment? No, I am not creating a false god-like image, and openly acknowledge that a Smart CIO is a human being, meaning that from time-to-time they might not display sound judgment, and their smartness might wane at times. It will happen. On the other hand, by-and-large, for most of the time, and especially when it counts, they do indeed exhibit sound judgment.

A Smart CIO has passion for what they do. They are not just robotically performing the job of CIO. They believe in their role as a CIO and have passion for it. This passion is also shown as they do their work. It is not just hidden within them, but is instead an aura that is presented while they are performing as a CIO. They are also engaged, acting in a manner that shows they care and are involved.

A recent movement in the debate over IQ has led to the emergence of the assertion that people presumably also have an Emotional Quotient (EQ). Some would argue that IQ omits the emotional aspects of life and being human. As such, there has been created the EQ, capturing another dimension of a form of intelligence and intelligent behavior. In the CIO realm, this had sparked debate and discussions about whether CIO’s should or do exhibit a sufficient level of EQ. There is even a name given to this as known by the Social CIO or Socially Intelligent CIO.

I am including into the Smart CIO that they do have some kind of sufficient and capable EQ or social interaction capabilities.

So far, it seems like a tall order to be considered a Smart CIO.

But there’s even more.

As a “chief” and “officer” of a business, the CIO also needs the leadership capabilities to properly and appropriate lead the IT function and work with their fellow executives such as the CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, etc. The Smart CIO needs leadership capabilities and also management acumen. They need to have an astute business sense.

As the “information” word is also a part of the CIO acronym, the Smart CIO also needs to be technology literate, and be aware of and using when appropriate the latest in technology and systems trends. They need to know not just about the technology, but also the underlying informational aspects and digital aspects too.





You might already be aware that the computer field is filled with lots of acronyms. We seem to relish making up acronyms for all sorts of techie bells and whistles.

You might also already know that the word “SMART” has been turned into an acronym for other uses. For example, when trying to set goals, some would say that you should make “SMART” goals, meaning that they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. It’s a somewhat clever and memorable way to keep in mind what you need to do when setting goals and you can use the “SMART” acronym to remind you of what you need to know.

Let’s see if we can conjure up an acronym to fit with the Smart CIO.

I would assert that a Smart CIO is Systematic, Mindful, Adaptive, Respected, and True.

Systematic means that the Smart CIO plans out what they do, they are think in a systems way, and they realize and take into account that systems have many components and those components interact with each other. I am not referring simply to the technology side of being systematic, but also including the business aspects of being systematic, the organizational and company politics of being systematic, and so on.

Mindful means that the Smart CIO does things not by random chance or by being haphazard. Instead, they think about what they are doing and going to do. They are mindful of the consequences of the choices and decisions they make. They are mindful of how to enact those decisions and choices.

Adaptive means that the Smart CIO is able to adapt as conditions change. The business might change. The technology might change. The industry might change. To these changes, the Smart CIO is able to readily adapt. They adapt on a timely basis. They adapt willingly. They adapt as befits the circumstance.

Respected means that the Smart CIO is respected for what they do and who they are. Having such respect is crucial to performing their role. Without having respect, even though they might be able to command others to act, the added aspect of having respect will carry them further along. They have goodwill that acts as a well of support, and the respect that they have is earned respect and not just respect by title alone.

True means that the Smart CIO is authentic. They are who they present themselves to be. Trying to act as a Smart CIO is not likely to fool anyone for very long. The trials and tribulations of being a CIO are a tremendous wear and tear. There is a truth about them and they are known for honoring their word and being real.

We can now refer to the Smart CIO as the SMART CIO with this added acronym.

I am not particularly a fan of such acronyms and so have opted to continue here with referring to the Smart CIO without the acronym. The acronym might be handy if you think it an easier way to remember what the picture I am painting of what a Smart CIO is.



Whenever I refer to the Smart CIO, I usually get someone that wants to right away heckle and tosses out the idea that there must be the Dumb CIO’s if there are Smart CIO’s.

Well, Okay, you could certainly say that there are Dumb CIO’s and I can see how one would think of it as the opposite side of the coin of the Smart CIO’s, but I think the word “dumb” is an overly saturated word with all sorts of confounding meanings.

If you want to go that route of using the word “dumb” then I suppose you could also say there are Dull CIO’s, Light CIO’s, Unaware CIO’s, and so on.

I’ll even help out and offer an acronym using the word “smart” but tries to suggest the opposite of what was intended with the SMART acronym.

Rather than Systematic, Mindful, Adaptive, Respected, True, the negative polarity of the Smart CIO might be said to be Sloppy, Mindless, Anchored, Reclusive, and Two-faced.

Anyway, I don’t find it especially productive to play the game of trying to identify what is the opposite of the Smart CIO.

Instead, I would claim that the Smart CIO is like a temperature gauge. There are those that are at a less level of yet being a Smart CIO, and those that are at a higher measure of being a Smart CIO.

If you fall below a minimum threshold, then I would suggest that calling someone a Smart CIO is no longer valid and actually misleading.



To further explore the Smart CIO definition, let’s use a handy quadrant.

Take a look at Figure 2.


Smart - Figure 2 quadrants


We’ll keep things simple and offer that there are two main dimensions of gauging a Smart CIO.

First, there is the business metric, along the vertical axis. The business metric is loosely stated as ranging from low to high. Imagine that within this business metric we are bundling all of the earlier stated aspects about being business savvy.

Next, along the horizontal axis, let’s put the technology metric. The technology metric is also loosely stated as ranging from low to high. This technology metric is considered bundled with all of the earlier indicated technology aspects about a Smart CIO.

Generally, the Smart CIO is in the upper right corner. They exhibit a High score on the business metric and a High score on the Tech metric. We’ll use a star to indicate this is the rock star and aim for being a Smart CIO.

What about the other three quadrants?

There is the Low-Low quadrant, meaning a CIO that is lacking in business and in technology. As mentioned earlier, there are some that would try to maybe label these as being “Dumb CIO’s” but I’ll instead politely call them “Aspiring CIO’s.” I do this because I would assert that assuming they are actually acting as a CIO, I would hope that they might realize they are well below what is expected and hoped for becoming a Smart CIO, and that they would seek to embellish their business and technology acumen accordingly.

One potential concern about these Low-Low CIO’s is that they can at times inadvertently poison the barrel and make a black-eye for all CIO’s. We’ve probably all seen this happen, wherein a CEO with a CIO that is not up-to-the-task is not seen as an individual that is poorly performing, but instead perceived as a blanket representation of all CIO’s. In such cases, the CEO will often ban the role of CIO, mistakenly commingling an individual that was not up to the CIO role with the general notion of the CIO role. We know that if they had filled the role with a Smart CIO they would realize the value of a CIO.

There is quadrant of a High on the business metric and Low on the tech metric.

Typically, this indication of someone with top business acumen but low on the tech side is commonly seen when a firm decides to put a non-IT person into the CIO role. Perhaps someone from the Operations side of the company is well trusted by the firm and knows the business really well. The company thinks that they can drop the person into the CIO role, and whatever tech stuff is needed won’t be much of a concern. These CIO’s are sometimes called the Accidental CIO.

I would argue that this is a dangerous kind of CIO. There is danger because if they are insufficient in their technology smartness, they can make decisions involving technology that lead the firm down a bad path. I realize that some would say that the business-only CIO can be augmented by surrounding them with techies, but this usually doesn’t work out very well. The business-only CIO gets multiple tech opinions from those around them and cannot judge which is best or worst. They also cannot provide much guidance or mentoring to their techies and will often be perceived poorly by the techies that feel like the person just doesn’t get what they are telling them.

I am not saying that the Accidental CIO is always doomed to failure. I would say that an Accidental CIO should be striving toward the Smart CIO quadrant, augmenting their business prowess with sufficient tech capabilities and awareness.

The last quadrant to discuss is the High on tech and the Low on business, the classic “Techie CIO.”

This has been the mainstay for many years. CIO’s that came out of the technical ranks and ultimately rose to the CIO title. Unfortunately, this tended to make a bad name for CIO’s and the ongoing accusation that CIO’s are not business savvy.

Similar to the Accidental CIO, I would hope that a Techie CIO would realize the limitations of not having the appropriate business acumen and would be seeking to add that prowess to become a truly Smart CIO.

Take a look at Figure 3.


Smart - Figure 3 aiming


I am saying that ultimately the CIO’s in the other three quadrants should all be striving toward the top right corner and become a Smart CIO.

This is not so that they can somehow walk around with a badge that says they are a Smart CIO, but because if they embody the ingredients of a Smart CIO they will be running IT more effectively and efficiently and strategically for the company.

I would also emphasize that being in the top right corner is not a birthright and nor a spot that once achieved is everlasting.

It is actually somewhat common to see a Smart CIO that falls behind and drifts downward, bordering onto the other quadrants. They need to be continually fighting to stay in the upper right corner. As mentioned earlier, if they are mindful they will realize that they are falling behind, and if they are adaptive they will update and change to keep themselves properly fit.


In the debate about being intelligent, there are some that argue that a person is born with a set amount of intelligence. You can then either use it or not. But, if you are born with perhaps a lower level of intelligence, you are stuck. Nothing you can do will rise you up.

In many ways, this depiction of intelligence is misleading and generally debunked.

It does bring up an interesting issue, namely, the classic debate over nature versus nurture. Is a person born with certain characteristics and as such they are deemed for or best suited for certain things in life?

This is an ongoing debate in the leadership realm. Some say that leaders are born as leaders. They claim that you cannot make someone into being a leader. They then point to certain charismatic leaders as proof of this claim. It is a bit of spurious proof and I am not going to get mired into that debate here.

Instead, let’s contemplate whether the Smart CIO is born that way or can they be nurtured into it?

One viewpoint is that for some elements, such as the leadership component, they must be born with it, while the other parts can be learned.

In fact, it is frequently stated that you would be best to hire someone with business savvy and teach them the techie stuff, rather than get a techie and try to turn them into a business savvy person.

That being said, I assure you that I have seen business savvy people that could not gain the techie side, and I’ve seen techies that took just fine to the business side.

A brush stroke kind of assertion on this is probably weak in terms of trying to claim that all techies are not suitable to being migrated into the business side, and equally questionable to say that al business savvy types are readily migrated into the tech.

My position is that the nurture wins out over the nature argument for the Smart CIO, assuming that the individual that we are considering is really meeting the earlier stated characteristics. A person of a smart mind and embodying the willingness and desire, I believe, can be mentored, coached, educated, trained into the Smart CIO role.


We earlier touched upon the aspect that a Smart CIO keeps up with trends.

There are numerous evolving trends in the IT field, such as DevOps, Hybrid IT, Bi-Modal IT, and so on.

It is expected and incumbent upon a Smart CIO to be up-to-speed on these trends.

That being said, it is worthwhile to clarify what it means to say that the Smart CIO needs to be up-to-speed on the trends.

One might leap to the conclusion that the Smart CIO must embrace the trend and accept it and adopt it.

That’s not what I am saying and nor implying.

Awareness of a trend means that the Smart CIO is aware of the emerging trend. They know what it consists of. They learn about how it is valued or not valued. They contemplate seriously how they should embrace it, or not embrace it.

This means that they do not ignore trends.

I point this out because some CIO’s will by the waving of their hands just shrug off a trend that they know little about.

That’s not a Smart CIO.

Some CIO’s will blindly fight a trend, and try to ridicule the trend by making belittling comments. The frequent such exhortation is that “seen that, done that,” even though they might not have actually ever really have done it.

That’s not a Smart CIO.

A Smart CIO would dig deeply enough into the trend to have a proper understanding for it, and if they believe it is not worthy they would have a handful of solid reasons to back their findings.

Some CIO’s brush aside a trend as a fad.

A Smart CIO realizes that even if a trend is a fad, the fad aspect can be leveraged and used for other means that otherwise might not get attention or resources.

Each of these above points take us around to the notion of the mindfulness of the Smart CIO and the adaptive capabilities of the Smart CIO.



If you are an existing CIO, I hope that this elaboration of what constitutes a Smart CIO will be of use to you. It might open your eyes to facets of the CIO role that you knew about but maybe has fallen by the wayside in the harsh hectic day-to-day role as a CIO.

If you are an aspiring CIO, I hope that this will give you a sense of what you might be doing and considering doing to become a Smart CIO.

For any researchers or observers of CIO’s, perhaps this elaboration will spark ideas on how to further assess and probe on the CIO role.

Enough said.