The role of the CIO is a tough one, and success doesn’t come easily. For whatever reasons, the average CIO lasts only a few years in post. [See also: How to become a CIO - The career parth to a Chief Information Officer job]
Many other C-level managers would argue that their functional areas are also hard to handle, but the role of the CIO has unique characteristics which make it more challenging than most:
As a CIO you need to master a wide array of technical topics, and you need to maintain this level of competence in a rapidly changing IT environment.
But more importantly, as a CIO you also need to employ softer skills from other disciplines, including organisational development and the management of change and innovation.
- You must excel in communication too; of course, this isn’t a skill that’s specific to technology, but the complexity of modern technologies demands a particularly strong level of verbal and written skills.
- You must be able to communicate and dissect complex technical issues in an easily-understood way
- You must communicate with an audience who are not particular willing to listen, since they are pre-conditioned by poor communication from IT staff in the past.
- It’s also critical that you engage with business leaders in their language. In practice, that usually requires a strong knowledge of accounting concepts such as opex, capex and cashflow.
- You need superb networking capabilities. Because IT is generally seen as a support function, there is only limited opportunity for you to sit on the board, but that doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to strategic thinking, or exert no influence. Actually, the opposite is true. Since CIOs are usually not part of the inner management circle, you have to work even harder to understand your multiple stakeholders, and you must use your networking skills shrewdly in order to influence decisions.
All businesses are hotbeds of political intrigue, and a CIO who ignores the politics will eventually become a victim of them. So, communication and engagement skills are key.
The IT leadership journey
With all these challenges, it’s a big step up from IT manager to CIO and that raises the question of whether the average IT manager a good candidate for the CIO role.
IT professionals are stereotyped as conscientious and detail-minded, often mastering a narrow area of expertise during the early stages of their careers, and these attributes are often displayed by more introverted and less sociable people than the average.
By contrast, the CIO role involves working much more closely and more frequently with others.
At the same time, an IT manager’s role in the IT department is often shielded from the business, and this limited exposure can mean that, when the IT manager aspires to the CIO role, he or she may be seen as lacking in business acumen.
This does not mean that a CIO can’t come from the IT function. IT managers can have the right basic skills to become successful CIOs.
Their strong grounding in technical skills is a pre-requisite for leading an IT team, but this technical base needs to be coupled with very strong business skills, and these do not naturally come from within the IT function and technology environment itself.
Five steps to the CIO role
In practice, this means that aspiring IT leaders should consider five key steps:
Seek a mentor from another part of the business. Training and theories are fine, but having a senior business leader who can coach you and provide feedback is a very effective way to grow into a successful leader.
Work outside the IT function for a period. Many companies offer secondments, and these can provide invaluable experience.
A secondment can also give you insights into how the business views the IT function. Seeing the other side of the coin is useful, and when you return to the IT team, you can take action to improve the way IT supports the business.
Take every opportunity to present and communicate with senior leaders. Observe and study senior leaders, and watch how they present.
It’s useful to attend presentation and communication courses, but the real learning comes when you put things into practice.
Preparing and understanding how to contextualise messages is critical – to be able to say something in two slides as opposed to ten is a skill many IT managers should learn.
Attend company events and socialise with colleagues outside the IT team. It’s often difficult to hone your social and influencing skills, as this means stepping outside your personal comfort zone.
Being able to work a room is something that generally does not come easy to anyone, but it can be learnt; and the way to do so is through practice.
Build a strong understanding of finance concepts. There are many excellent books that provide an overview of accounting concepts.
Talk to your finance team and understand how they view IT from a cost perspective. The better you understand the finance team, the easier your life will be once becoming a CIO.
Antony Barnes and Marcus Johansson are associates at PricewaterhouseCoopers