Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Faraway, Yet So Close: The Paradox of Global CIO Leadership

Our recent research has focused on identifying the specific leadership skills that distinguish great CIOs. The findings from our study are meant to generalize to a broad audience of CIOs. But what happens when you train your focus on just one particular group – Global CIOs? What is it that they need to succeed and achieve stellar results? Do they do something different than CIOs who aren’t leading on a global stage?

It appears that one of the seven skills we profiled in The CIO Edge, Embracing Your Softer Side, takes on a particular significance in a global context. It is the skill that is perhaps the most difficult to manage across cultures and time zones, but also the one with the largest upside impact when practiced successfully.

The key to effectively building and managing relationships in an international context is understanding. People are different across the world, that much is clear. Some differences matter more than others. Which ones matter and, furthermore, how they matter isn’t always clear. It requires a deep understanding of both the individual and the surrounding cultural context to begin to make this all come into focus.

Essential to building understanding is being open and receptive. The trump card skill here is listening. Not just hearing, listening. If you are to begin to truly understand someone – their ideas, their beliefs, their aspirations, their concerns – then you need to exercise your patience, restrain your own desire to talk and really, truly listen.

Humor, suprisingly, also plays a role. Culture has a strong shaping effect on humor. By establishing a light, but still productive tone to interactions and allowing humor to surface, you give others an opportunity to express themselves and also gain a glimpse into who they are.

Understanding is a two-way street. It is just as important for you to give of yourself as it is to draw others out. Caring and relating are essential, especially when great distances are involved. As a result of being fair and caring, high-performing CIOs engender a deep sense of loyalty and “followership,” even when tough people decisions are called for. Likewise, the ability to relate to all kinds of people fosters a bond and a platform for collaborative relationships and working through tough issues. Finally, personal disclosure of the appropriate type and frequency gives others the opportunity to know “the real you.”

This leads us to the central paradox in being a global CIO - you can actually gain strength as a leader by being vulnerable. Successful CIOs show they care enough about the people they work with to make themselves vulnerable so that it can be a truly two-way relationship. In other words, by demonstrating vulnerability – hoping that others will open themselves up in return – these CIOs are creating an environment that facilitates understanding and sets the stage for stronger relationships. Distance is an important considersation here – the further away you are from others, the closer you have to draw them in.

The role of technology is also paradoxical. Obviously, technology has enabled us to become instantly connected to one another across any distance. Great things can be accomplished without ever needing to be together in the same room. Similarly, a misuse or overreliance on technology can cause as many stumbling blocks as it eliminates, particularly when it comes to building relationships and solving complex matters that tap into emotions, beliefs and personal values.

Sometimes the old-fashioned, people-to-people skills just can’t be replaced. By embracing your soft side and showing a willingness to be vulnerable, you become more connected to your people and this helps to make a very large and messy world just a bit smaller and more manageable.

Note: An edited version of this post is due to appear on the Smart Enterprise Exchange blog site in January along with a related post from my co-author Graham Waller of Gartner. Keep an eye on Graham's blog ( for related info.