CEO Best Practices

The One Thing CEOs Overlook In Hiring A CIO

The CIO search isn’t just about the resume or cultural fit. There are types of CIOs not typical CIOs. Knowing the difference, and who you should look for, is the difference between a CIO who will be effective and long term or a short term placeholder.

Scott Smeester


March 14, 2024

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The X-factor.

Only X is not a mystery. X can be defined, seen, queried, tested, selected. X marks the spot.

I recently helped a company make a critical hire. For the most part, the candidates were equal across the page in technology proficiency. They had similar skills. But they operated in different lanes. 

By lanes, I mean thinking wavelengths, which I posted about earlier this week. You need to know about these when you hire your CIO. Not all CIOs are alike; most things being equal, it’s their wavelength that makes the difference to determine if they are your perfect fit (and for CIOs to decide if they are a long-term fit for the company).

The Five Wavelengths

The thinking wavelength was developed by my friend, the late Tom Paterson, who was a business legend with GE and beyond. The premise is that each of us has a primary lane of operation, an avenue of thinking. We can slide into a neighboring wavelength and operate there, but not for long. And we cannot leap over a bordering wavelength and into another. It just doesn’t pan out.

I’ve redefined them in terms related to the CIO. Because you are not interviewing a CIO to be your CIO; you are interviewing a CIO to be a certain type of CIO. And if you are not clear on what type you need, longevity is unlikely. The CIO turnover rate is high because the mismatch of wavelength to executive need is great.

 Diligent Doer

The Diligent Doer gets the work done. They are detail oriented, and like to put their hands to the work. They love documentation, taking a step at a time, administering and grinding it out. If you think on a spectrum of concrete to abstract thinkers, they are on the far left, 0-2 on a scale of 10 for abstraction.

A small percentage of CIOs are a Diligent Doer. And a small percent of companies are looking for them. Diligent Doers are in the weeds. Generally speaking, smaller companies with a small staff but generous titles may enlist a technically proficient CIO. But that CIO is not leading teams or thinking strategically. And that’s okay if that’s what you need, because in contrast, this same company would not want a more abstract leader who shies away from details and documentation.

The Super Visor

Yes, that’s spelled correctly. A visor is a type of hat that is used for protection and for ventilation. It is dual-purposed.

The Super Visor CIO is able to manage a team and supervise performance. They are organized to facilitate team production, and they are able to diagnose problems to ensure continuity and constancy of work.

Concrete thinkers are generally risk averse, cautious about change, prefer few variables, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and are problem/task oriented. Super Visors are a 2-4 on the scale, leaning toward the concrete and away from the abstract.

Traditionally, this is the cost-center CIO who leads a team and does not report directly to the CEO. This is also the CIO who is leading a small tech team for whom they are their direct report.

Smooth Operator

The Smooth Operator is able to manage the whole organization and appreciates the administrative and the strategic. They are concrete and abstract with a bias to the operational; they handle variables while being organized and good with people.

On the Concrete-Abstract scale they sit in the center, 4-6 out of 10.

The Smooth Operator is able to lead through others. They develop systems and develop people. They can mediate conflict, dive into details and yet rise up to appreciate the larger vision.

Smooth Operators will be found in any size organization. Their value is obvious. However, innovation and creativity may not be their strong suit. Instead, they will get the work done, understanding how it relates to the needs of the business, but not necessarily initiating collaborative vision.

Creative Captain

The Creative Captain is an abstract thinker who has trouble completing the forms required by others. They are often perceived as loose cannons in a group structure. Their strengths are in being innovative and creative, and they welcome new challenges.  Creative Captains are not strong on follow through, and they are easily bored by a steady state. 

Creative Captains work well with the business because they sense opportunities, and they know how to spot and fill voids. Creative Captains are starters.They sit in 6-8 on abstract thinking.

Abstract thinkers are not risk averse; they welcome change, function well with many variables, make quantum leaps, tolerate ambiguity and are opportunity oriented.

CEOs who are looking for the CIO who can work well in the C-Suite and lead other C-Suite members need the Creative Captain. They also need the Creative Captain to be surrounded by staff who give attention to detail, can supervise people, and can manage systems.

Technology Theorist

The Technology Theorists are 8-10 on abstract thinking scales. There are not many CIOs who fit this profile, nor are there many companies that benefit from having a CIO who is one. 

Technology Theorists are bright and persuasive. They have trouble bringing things to closure. They work best in experimental environments. They are researchers and innovators, but they don’t necessarily manage people well.

The Technology Theorist might be hired by the CEO who is looking for future innovation, for leaders who can conceive but not necessarily complete ideas that drive the organization. 

Who And What To Look For

You likely aren’t looking for the Diligent Doer or Technology Theorist,

Your sweet spot will be with the Visor, Operator or Captain.

The Super Visor will thrive in working with your tech team and executing the system. The Smooth Operator will thrive in managing multiple tech teams through others and in integrating tech into the larger vision. The Creative Captain seeks to lead your company to next levels of technology implementation, seeing  business needs with an eye on what could be.

Each has their strengths and drawbacks.

And each is different, subtle as those differences are. This is not the space to talk about assessments and behavioral interview techniques. I’m happy to help you discern candidates as the need arises or to recommend resources for your search.

This is the place to recognize that when you need a CIO, you are not looking for the typical, you are looking for a type.

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