A CIO's performance is measured on how they can use digital technology to help deliver innovation.

As the role of a CIO varies in business, a starting CIO can find getting ahead of the competitors a daunting challenge. Here, we look at how CIOs can use their strategic leadership skills to help get the business ahead of its competitors and keep their brand relevant. (See also: Three new priorities for CIOs in 2017)

How a new CIO can stay ahead of the competition: A platform for communication

A CIO should communicate to their digital team, fellow executives and the organisation, explaining how digital can influence the business model.

The digital leader should build relationships with different departments to create a digital vision of where the business should be in the next 12 months.

Businesses should have a platform to voice opinions. A CIO should communicate freely with colleagues to help motivate one another to reach their goals whilst increasing the digital team's creativity to benefit from future digital technology.

The open discussion will create a better understanding of their company's needs and how they work together to reach the same shared business goals. According to a recent BT report, 21% of organisations are having difficulty understanding new technologies.

The use of collaboration tools such as Slack, Trello and Google Mail can help give support to colleagues to ensure an understanding of IT. 

Last year, Unilever moved from a project delivery to a business delivery model, led by CIO Jane Moran, in helping their business partners to "simplify, clean up and scale" the technology platform to help drive a competitive advantage for the company.

Speaking to CIO UK, Moran discussed how platforms are used in the company to voice opinions and engage with teams helping to support the business capabilities at Unilever.

"Our IT organisation is divided into business engagement teams which provide employee services, creating and using information and insight for a competitive advantage and investing in supporting technology to drive efficiency and growth," she said.

"But not only do we provide employees and the business with the best possible tools, technology and information at the best possible cost, we also use technology as a driver for competitive advantage at Unilever."

How a new CIO can stay ahead of the competition: Invest in talent

Tech companies should often refresh their employee talent through investing, upskilling and hiring new talent.  

But research suggests soft skills are playing a vital role as much as IT skills, with networking, management and communication regarded as equally important as cybersecurity (95%), according to the 2017 Spiceworks survey.

Investing in skills is often cited as a concern for CIOs and retaining IT talent. Applying the relevant experience to the industry can help push the company in a competitive market while also meeting the changing demands of the industry. (See also: 10 ways CIO can retain and engage young people in IT and digital)

How a new CIO can stay ahead of the competition: Competition research

A key skill required by the digital leader is flexibility, with 48% of CIOs needing to adapt to the pressured environment of keeping ahead of the competition, according to a recent BT report.

For a starting CIO researching the competition through the use of reports and statistics will demonstrate how a digital leader can expand the business for future growth. In the long term, it will show how the organisation has evolved in developing digital technologies and IT strategies.

Competition research was cited by a number of CIOs in how they can keep track of the business market for further development, and Head of IT operations Paul Leonard uses research for creative purposes at William Tracey.

"By looking at the waste management industry in the US which is around 10 years ahead of the UK in terms of technology it has allowed me to get our business to focus on what the customer wants rather than what the customer needs," he said.

William Tracey has undertaken a forward thinking approach led by Leonard, which will see a development of the business strategy, rather than focusing on previous experiences.

"This has given us a real competitive advantage when it comes to winning new business as we are able to offer new and improved services, which are driven by technology and bounds and keep us ahead of other waste management companies," he added. (See also: Top skills for CIOs: 7 skills CIOs should have on their CVs.)

How a new CIO can stay ahead of the competition: Target a new market

The competitive market should see companies explore new products and services in order to reach a wider audience.

Driving digital transformation while also expanding the business has the risk of losing the current customer base. A way of tackling this issue has seen CIOs collaborate with marketing departments to learn from the customer profile.

Through incentives such as discounts and rewards it can help make the business more appealing to audiences while also expanding the customer base. By offering incentives this will ensure regular customers will feel valued and remain loyal to the brand. (See also: How to build brand awareness.)

How a new CIO can stay ahead of the competition: Taking risks

Almost half of CIOs are taking risks in experimenting with technologies and implementing creative ideas in the organisation.

Digital trends are seeing organisations adopting a similar pattern through the same technologies being used in the business strategies. For a starting CIO taking a unique perspective on emerging technology in the company will add credibility to their role, and will also help ensure better business decisions are made in the future.

CIO 100 member Tim Jones uses a variety of digital tools which can give him a great chance to "excel" in his CIO role, while also taking digital risks at MoneySupermarket.com.

"Twitter is a great stream of raw information that allows you curate and experiment with ideas, as are editorial sites such as Mashable, TechCrunch and the Register," he said. "Avoiding CIO conferences that seem stuck in the year 2000 of subjects like - how to influence the board, the relationship with the CMO etc. are not helping MoneySupermarket in going forward in the long run."

Jones takes a different approach which sees him offer advice to starting CIOs and how they can bring new ideas to the team and business strategy.

"Tracing down start-up events around the world, while looking for great new ideas which can allow you to work with new exciting companies is something that really makes a competitive difference; before an Oracle snaps them up and adds them to a 'jack of all trades' product and kills them," he said.

"The bottom line is unless you are willing to take risks or go out on a limb; the best you get is a run of the mill conference content, that is five years behind the curve. Those measured risks are what make the difference between winning and just being in the game,"

As a starting CIO keeping track of fellow competition will give an insight of what a CIO can do for future business growth. CIOs should have the ability to communicate freely within the organisation in creating a digital vision for the company. This can lead a starting CIO to gain more credibility in their role by getting ahead of their competitors for business growth. (Read next: 2017 key industry trends for 2017.)