The Personality Trait That Can Hold CIOs Back

December 23, 2014


The personality traits that serve many IT workers well as they rise through the ranks in an IT department, can actually trip them up once they become a chief information officer. That’s because once they’re in the C-suite, many CIOs begin to work closely with CEOs or CMOs with different personality traits.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a psychometric questionnaire that’s been used since the 1940s to match personality preferences with jobs. The major difference between the typical CIO and the most common personality type of a CEO or CMO tends to be in how they perceive the world, said Sherrie Haynie, an organizational development consultant with CPP, Inc., the exclusive publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Most CIOs perceive the world through information gained through the five senses, which means they prefer to focus on concrete facts, numbers and data that happen in the present, according to the research of Joe Peppard, a professor at the European School of Management and Technology. Broadly speaking, CEOs and CMOs tend to focus on intuition, or information acquired as patterns or hunches, said Ms. Haynie. “So they might be pushing more toward the big picture, looking long range at the vision,” she said.

Mr. Peppard’s research, conducted on hundreds of participants in his IT Leadership Program over nearly a decade, found that 70% of CIOs fall into a personality type called ISTJ. This personality type describes people who are introverts rather than extraverts, who perceive the world through their senses rather than intuition and those who base decisions on thoughts rather than feelings. The last letter means that the person prefers to use judgment rather than perception, meaning that he or she focuses on predictability, planning and control rather than perception, which is the ability to be adaptable, spontaneous and flexible. Some have said that the fictional character Spock from Star Trek is an ISTJ.

This data meshes with Ms. Haynie’s research that when you look at the four elements of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that CIOs tend to be ISTJs. Still, if you’re just looking at introversion compared to extraversion, it’s a stereotype to say that most CIOs are introverts, she said. While ISTJ is the most common personality type among CIOs, the fundamental difference between CIOs and other execs is in their preference for senses—represented by the S in the four letter combination–over intuition—the N–and not whether they are introverts or extraverts, she said. The distribution of introverts to extraverts among CIOs is similar to a nationally representative sample of people, she added.

Typically other C-suite executives are either INTJ or ENTJ personality types. The most important difference between CIOs and other C-suite executives, she said, is the way they perceive the world. It’s important to note that Myers-Briggs can describe our preferences, but it doesn’t in any way indicate our performance, said Ms. Haynie. The greatest significance is that someone is aware that they have a preference and that may sway towards data, facts and figures. “Having that awareness in being able to develop and consider other options and think outside the box — anyone can learn to do that,” she said.

For example, her firm has worked with clients who have received feedback that they’re too rigid, or too narrowly focused. Others with the ISTJ personality type might have been told that they’re too focused on the short term and past historical events and need to pay more attention to developing a vision for the future. Still other CIOs may have gotten feedback that they need to take greater risks and be more innovative. Executive coaches can help CIOs develop these skills.

There are limits to what the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can do. “It does a great job of describing people’s preferences but it doesn’t necessarily account for what people are facing today,” said Karen West, a partner in executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.’s Chicago office who also has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology. For example, one challenge CIOs face is an increasing level of ambiguity, complexity and volatility. You can have two people with the same Myers-Briggs personality type where one is able to handle ambiguity and the other is not, she said.

Now that many CIOs and CMOs are working more closely together, these personality differences can lead to mutual frustration. A CMO may want to move more quickly on a project than is comfortable for a CIO who has not yet gathered enough data, said Katherine Graham Shannon, global practice managing partner of executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles’ Information and Technology Officers Practice.

“When you see CMOs cooking up their own IT organizations it’s because they need to move fast and they’re not going to wait,” said Ms. Shannon. It’s one reason Heidrick & Struggles has picked up more CIO and CMO searches lately because “that relationship just isn’t working,” she said.


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