With digital transformation efforts underway at many companies, the CIO has an opportunity to become an important member of the C-suite who can find technical ways to advance the company’s goals. But how do you actually become a CIO?
“There is no one CIO profile,” said Ansgar Schulte, a Gartner analyst on the CIO team. While you traditionally see CIOs with a background in either IT or business, Schulte said he’s recently seen an increase in those taking the job from marketing, product development, and even HR.
While a tech background gives you an advantage in areas such as security and working with vendors, those from other business realms often have the communication, management, and strategy skills the CIO job demands.
“It’s usually easier for a strong business leader to get a necessary understanding of the tech challenges and have some people on the leadership team helping to address those, than for a tech executive to acquire the non-technical competencies like strategy and governance,” Schulte said.
The CIO role is more fluid than it used to be, Schulte said. “You need to be open to different responsibilities coming your way,” he said. “In the future, the focus of the CIO will be less on information management but more on reaping business opportunities through digital technologies.”
Here are the skills and attributes you need to pick up to climb the corporate ladder and land a CIO job.
1. Willingness to take on the hardest projects
David Giambruno, CIO of Shutterstock, started his career in sales at a networking company, where he learned how customers were using technology.
How did he move up the ranks? “I took the absolute worst jobs,” Giambruno said. “If someone said, ‘This project is going to be a total failure,’ I would raise my hand, because there was no downside. It taught me how to wield technology for an outcome, and how to use every single asset at my disposal, including people, processes, and technology, to get a good outcome.”
This is especially important for CIOs without experience on the enterprise side, according to Matt Guarini, vice president and research director serving CIOs at Forrester. “If you start with your roots within IT, get outside and look for opportunities where you can work in the business,” Guarini said. “It will help you build knowledge of an organization and business tech, and will help you think about innovation and problem solving.”
Hone your communication skills: “Part of the CIO job is to explain technology in a way that people can consume, and to make it approachable,” Giambruno said. “I spend a lot of time thinking of metaphors to explain things in.” Drawings can also help, he said, because a picture gives people something easier to relate to than a document.
CIOs must be good at both communicating ideas and gathering feedback, according to Dustin Bolander, CIO of Technology Pointe. “Too many people in the IT industry say ‘No, it has to be done this way,’ especially the higher end technical ones,” Bolander said. “The best CIOs that I have worked with have the ability to clearly consider something from the other side’s point of view.”
3. Business acumen over technology skills
“Being a CIO is much more about having a good strategic vision than about being a master of technology,” according to Douglas Shook, CIO of the University of Southern California. Many people only focus on the technology angle, when in reality, it’s about understanding the company’s core operations and goals and addressing them with technology solutions, he said.
“As we settle into this world being driven by digital transformation, CIOs are being thrust into strategic positions rather than purely tactical ones,” said Rocana CIO Don Brown. “This means they must understand what the business actually needs and how technology can best deliver that vision, as opposed to building fiefdoms around particular vendors or tools and forcing square pegs into round holes. To do this requires near constant learning and relearning, and frequently challenging assumptions.”
The role of the CIO has evolved to become more of a business partnership role, according to Alan Stukalsky CIO of Randstad Technologies. “I predict that in the next 5 years, the strategy of most organizations will transition from IT being an afterthought to IT being an integral part of leadership meetings and the role and importance of CIOs will change accordingly.”
That being said, there are several core technology skills that are key for the CIO to master, said Schulte. Deep knowledge of risk and cybersecurity is one. “You need some understanding on how to protect critical information assets of your organization,” Schulte said.
CIOs must fully understand the importance of security, and how to put different security frameworks in place and work with vendors, Guarini said.
A strong foundation in data analytics is also necessary for today’s CIO, according to Shook. It’s key for CIOs to be able to collect and analyze large sets of data and draw insights that can help the company’s strategy. “The whole notion of doing data in a warehouse is dead—we’re going to be moving more into live data analytics,” he said.
6. Configuring over creating
Shook predicts that companies are moving to an environment where all servers are in the cloud, and most applications will come from SaaS providers. “We’re going to lease our software in the cloud, and will not so much be creators of tech but configurers of tech,” Shook said. “We’re going to acquire software functionality out of the cloud, and need to configure it to suit our enterprise.”
As products give way to services, a new crop of CIOs is emerging to support their business transformations in the age of the Subscription Economy, according to Alvina Antar, CIO of Zuora. “This innovative group of tech leaders must be equipped differently to handle a new business model that requires new executive buy-in and the skills and infrastructure to differentiate their business,” Antar said.
CIOs must be able to acquire technology and take advantage of changing landscapes in increasingly shorter time periods, Giambruno said. “The days of taking three to five years to do an implementation are over. You are now measured in months,” he said. “The ability to acquire and divest technologies quickly and make quick use of them is a skillset that will pay people dividends.”
7. Performance management
Aspiring CIOs need to learn to manage an organization of people, Schulte said. “IT is still a people discipline,” Schulte said. “You need to be able to guide and motivate talented people who aren’t necessarily always highly communicative.”
This also involves monitoring the performance of people, and the service levels you deliver to the organization, Schulte said.
8. Change leadership
CIOs need to be able to lead broad changes, Schulte said. “Whenever you introduce a tech system in the enterprise that influences the way people work, you need to get people to help you shape and define that new tool or system,” he said. “Then you need to train them. You need to be comfortable with leading people through change and transformational projects.”
CIOs live in a constantly moving ecosystem of business units and technology, Giambruno said. “You’re going to make decisions, and those decisions will change over time,” he said. “If you don’t like change, it’s not a good fit—the rate of change keeps increasing.”
Technology is now integrated from the start of a business process through the end, Guarini said. Therefore, “the CIO has to be somebody who can work with folks from operations, marketing, legal, and tech—all of these different elements that need to be connected,” he said, and orchestrate the entire organization’s efforts.
CIOs also need to lead innovation at their companies, Guarini said. This involves thinking through how to create and deliver everything from new business models to new solutions and processes, in terms of developing the idea, incubating it to promote it more broadly, and commercializing it.
“There’s so many great opportunities in terms of delivering business innovation for your company that can move the needle, and the CIO can be an integral role,” Guarini said. “For those folks that come in and do it right, they can start to be considered for the CEO job.”