caroline sands

How do you get a job as a Chief Information Officer? To explore the career paths of modern CIOs, I sat down with two recruiters from Odgers Berndtson: Alan Mumby, executive search partner, and Caroline Sands, managing partner and lead for the CIO and technology officers practice, to find out the career path and attributes of CIOs and technology executives. [See also - How to get a job as a CIO - 13 essential IT career tips]

Pat Brans: What kinds of university degrees put one on the path to becoming CIO?
Caroline Sands: It's really varied. But whatever the subject, it should come from a recognised course from a Russell Group university. This person might have studied Computer Science or economics - but equally music, or German say.

Intellectual dexterity - the ability to turn your hand to anything - is the important skill. We've found that an interest and passion for any subject is a good indicator that somebody might well have a successful career.

Alan Mumby: Something that was surprising to us at first is that some very successful CIOs have studied music - or when they were at university, played in a band, and continued to play in a band. Our only thought on why this might be is that music is very mathematically orientated - it's very logical. But its also expression; it's creative output. Maybe there's something in the ability to play music, and write music that's akin to strong skills for the CIO.

In any case, whenever we see and CV and see that the candidate plays in a band, we give it more attention.

PB: What kinds of first jobs do CIOs typically hold to start their career?
Caroline Sands: Their first jobs are a variety of things. A graduate training scheme within a blue chip is highly likely. Or they might have worked in a management consultancy. They may have been staffed as an analyst/programmer, as opposed to the network side. They might have worked in a tech start-up.

There isn't one single landing spot. But it's typically on the development side of things. In the typical CIO's remit, you got development, service, infrastructure, and then strategy and architecture. So development, strategy, and architecture are roles where you'd expect the majority of CIOs to have spent some time.

PB: What do you look for in the CV of somebody seeking a CIO role?
Alan Mumby: This is such an important question that we put a 20-minute video on YouTube to explain what recruiters look for.

Some 95% of the CVs that we get could be massively improved. They tend to focus on where they've been at a broad level, and what responsibilities they've had there. It's sort of like bragging about the fact that you have the keys to the photocopier.

You need to highlight data on the things that are important to being successful as a CIO. We want to know the data about who you've worked for, how big your team was, how big the budgets were, and what the KPIs of the role were. We also want to know three things about each achievement: What did you do? How well did you do it? And what did the business get from it?

It's that last point - the commerciality - that CIOs bizarrely seem to omit. If you don't focus on why you're doing what you're doing, how can you add maximum value? If you don't write these things on your CV, then clearly they're not the most important to you.

Know why you're doing something and what the expected outcome is for the business. This is even true if you’re in a relatively minor junior role in a programme of change. You should be focused on why you're doing something, even if you aren't able to influence the total outcome yourself.

If a CIO doesn't put these kinds of things in his or her CV, we're struggling to figure out if that person is really focused on commercial outputs.

By the way, the attributes that people recruit for - leadership, emotional intelligence, or stakeholder management - are exactly the kind of things you should not write in your CV. That's because you can't prove them using data. They're just opinions.

One final point is that you should concentrate in your CV on data that will get you an interview. Only at the meeting will the recruiter or the company make an assessment about your competencies and your personal attributes.

PB: Do CIOs typically have a history of having worked in several different organisations and in several different industries?
Caroline Sands: There are very few stable environments today, so you have to demonstrate flexibility. Staying in one place could mean you've become fixed in your behaviour and in your emotional intelligence. It might also mean you haven't learned different aspects of business that you would have learned by moving around some.

A little bit of change is fine. But if we have a CV from someone who changed jobs every three years over a 30-year period, that's a big worry. Balance is the key. And remember to show career progression through each move.

There are some very successful people who have stayed in their industry all their lives; and there are others who have changed every three or four years. In the UK public sector about 10 years ago, there was a tendency towards being there for life. This produced behaviours that weren't productive, so the central government wilfully changed that. The public sector is a much more varied and interesting place as a result.

Most industries, unless they're very specialised, tend to pull in people from other markets. Two exceptions to that rule may be investment banking and retail. In both of these cases, companies tend to go with people from the industry.

In general though, industry is not the most important factor. The most important factors are interpersonal skills – leadership, stakeholder management, and a bias towards action.