Larry Bonfante

The New CIO

What it takes to succeed at the top

August 2011

Larry Bonfante has spent nearly 30 years in executive leadership, was named one of Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Leaders in 2009, and currently serves as the CIO at the U.S. Tennis Association. Over the course of his career, Bonfante has seen the CIO role change—and he’s figured out what it takes to succeed.

In a recent interview, Bonfante told Profit that he wants CIOs who read his book, Lessons in IT Transformation: Technology Expert to Business Leader (Wiley, 2011), to understand that “they need to focus through the lens of business and not through the lens of technology.” Here, Bonfante talks about the skills today’s top technologists need to sharpen as they build their careers.

Profit: How is the CIO role evolving?

Bonfante: More and more, the CIO will have to be an innovator and an evangelist, as well as someone who can market and communicate. The CIO has to be a relationship manager and someone who can engage directly with the consumers of the company’s services and products. There will be tremendous opportunities for people who have those skills and inclinations.

CIOs who are very focused on the utility aspect of IT and delivering IT services are going to have a very short shelf life, quite frankly. There still might be opportunities with service providers, but ultimately as the CIO role evolves, it’s going to be more of a client-facing role, more of a consumer-facing role, more of an executive role, and less of a technologist role.

Profit: You founded CIO Bench Coach to provide executive coaching to CIOs and aspiring CIOs. What do these executives typically need to work on most?

Bonfante: Communication is the biggest gap, whether that means marketing the value you bring to an organization or understanding what other people are trying to accomplish so you can bring value to their efforts. CIOs are usually very intelligent people, excellent technologists, and good businesspeople, but they often don’t have the skill set or the experience set in managing relationships, in building relationships, or in communicating and articulating to people.

We do a lot of work to improve their listening skills. A lot of people think being a better communicator means being a better talker. Certainly being able to articulate a value proposition is important, but most of what you need to do is be a better listener. If you listen to people and draw out what matters to them, they will give you all the information you need in order to support their efforts.

Profit: What is the “hallway metric”?

Bonfante: A lot of CIOs are very focused on metrics, as they should be, but they’re focused on their own metrics, meaning that they’re focused on 4 or 5 nines of availability of some system or some service, whereas most of their clients don’t understand or care about those things.

The hallway metric is all about how people react when they see you. Are they happy to see you? Do they avoid you like the plague? Or, if they come toward you, is it to shake your hand or to choke you? How people engage you and your team is more important than all the 5 nines in the world that you’ll see on some bar chart somewhere.

Profit: What should other business leaders keep in mind when dealing with CIOs?

Bonfante: Executives should understand that a CIO is just another peer, just another executive. They shouldn’t be focused on the technology or intimidated by having conversations about technical issues and terms they’re not comfortable with. They should just articulate their business objectives and needs, and know that the CIO understands the implications of those objectives. A CIO just brings a different set of tools to help them accomplish those things.