Technical Skills, People Skills: It’s Not Either/Or

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When chief information officers (CIOs) first entered the executive suite, some 15 years ago, they were not exactly a popular addition.“More comfortable with computers than people” was a common verdict on CIOs who had risen through the information systems ranks. Employers seemed to face a simple tradeoff: CIOs with depth and breadth of technology expertise or those with general business and interpersonal skills, such as the ability to exercise influence within the organization. Fortunately, companies don't have to sacrifice either of these qualities, says Harvey Enns, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton School of Business Administration. Technologists can be equally as effective as less technically specialized CIOs at mobilizing the support of other top executives.

That finding stems from research on the nature of CIO influence carried out by Enns and three colleagues: Sid L. Huff, professor of information systems at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand; Brian R. Golden, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business; and Christopher A. Higgins, professor of management science and information systems at Ivey. (Research results are available at

By surveying 69 matched pairs of executives, consisting of a CIO and a peer executive at the same company, Enns and his colleagues found that CIOs with highly technical backgrounds and CIOs with greater general management experience did not differ in the behaviors they tend to use to influence colleagues. Instead, the technology background of the target executive played an important role in determining which tactics were successful.

Consultation, for example, proved to be effective in winning support from executives with relatively limited technical experience. These executives responded positively to the opportunity to help shape the CIO's proposals. However, the tactic often encountered resistance among “techie” executives, who interpreted attempts to engage in consultation as evidence that the CIO was failing to do his or her job. Similarly, that group tended to be turned off by flattery or vague references to the company's vision. Instead, Enns explains, rational persuasion, backed by a technically solid proposal, was the best way to win commitment from executives who had technology backgrounds.

CIOs of any experience can benefit from learning to adapt their behaviors to both their colleagues' personal preferences and the intangibles of company culture, agrees Judy Homer, president of J.B. Homer Associates, an IT executive search firm in New York City.

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