One of the most interestingly elements of being on the CIO 100 judging panel over the last few years is watching the way that the skills, capabilities and attributes necessary to do the job have evolved. This year was no exception. The winner, Anna Barsby from Halfords displayed qualities that you would have been hard pressed to find in a CIO 10 years ago. That isn't because the people in the role were in any way inferior but because you needed very different skills and expertise to be successful at the job and to take on that leadership role.
Identifying exactly what those skills and capabilities are is difficult because the role itself has also diversified. What it takes to be successful in a government department will differ considerably from the CIO of a modern, digitally led company like Amazon or Facebook. That said however there are some very definite themes emerging and the biggest by far is about the art of disruption:
"There is no question that the CIO of tomorrow has to put disruption at the top of their agenda," explains Neil Milner, Head of Programmes at Halfords and one of the next wave of talent that will be taking the CIO roles tomorrow. "Technology used to be the part of the business where you were least likely to find any risk taking but these days part of my job is to push the business to be bolder, to try new things."
Ten years ago most CIOs would have considered disruption to be a bad thing. The leaders in technology departments were primarily concerned with keeping the infrastructure working and the applications performing. The role of technology was to support the business – not drive it. There used to be a saying (not one I have heard in quite a while) that no one would get fired for choosing IBM. This is perfect example of the attitude that existed at the time, which was one of safety first. It is quite incredible how times have changed.
"It is about getting on the front foot," explains Paul Cutter, CTO at Betfair. "These days you cannot rely on IBM, SAP, Oracle etc to keep you safe. Sticking with the status quo will just ensure that your competitors will get ahead by learning and moving faster than you do."
Another major theme that has come through is around the importance of understanding the business.
"You cannot expect the business to consider you as part of the leadership time if you don't understand it," explains Cutter. "If you want to have a leadership role then my advice would be to go and spend some time in the areas of the business that the technology touches – which is pretty much all of it! Unless you understand the impact of technology then you cannot create an effective strategy."
"The idea that there is a separation between business and technology is a fallacy," says Milner. "The fact is the two are symbiotic. For the business to move faster (which 90% of them are trying to do) it has to work hand in hand with the technology so just by talking about them as separate entities you effectively depositioning the role."
The symbiotic relationship between technology and the business leads me to the third of the leadership themes that I have seen emerging of the last few years and that is around communication. It is not simply that you need to understand the business you also have to be able to communicate effectively with the business, provide the business to technology translation, set the innovation agenda and be as good or if not better than any fancy consultant or bearded digital disrupter.
"In order for us to be able to go at the pace we want to there are many moving parts that have to work together," explains Milner.
"In the retail environment we are constantly testing and trialing new ideas for the benefit of our customers. From instore tablets to eBay shop fronts, this involves many different parts of the business from product development, through digital and marketing and into tech. In my role as Head of Programmes a huge amount of my time is spent talking to other stakeholders, making sure we are aligned and working to the same KPIs."
For the upcoming technology champions like Neil Milner there are few certainties about what the role of the CIO will look like but one thing is for sure they cannot afford to stand still. To keep moving forward when you have no real idea what you are moving forward into is quite a challenge. It will take someone who is unafraid to fail but also knows that the price of failure cannot be too high. It also requires considerable persuasive abilities because there will be many people within many businesses who will still believe, despite all the high profile business failures that have come down to paralysis or apathy, it is safer to do nothing.
What is glaringly absent from this list of attributes is the word technology. Until quite recently a technical background was considered an absolute must for anyone going into a CIO role but not anymore. That perhaps is the biggest change of all.