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Editorial

The Qualities That Matter in Your Next CIO

7 minute read
Myles Suer avatar
What does a transformation-ready CIO look like, and how can a CEO make sure they get one?

Without question, COVID-19 brought CIOs to the executive table if they weren’t already there. The open question is just how many were ready. For those that weren’t ready, how does their perception of their role need to change to gain business relevance? And for the vanguard, how can they make sure a potential new employer wants what they deliver?

Let’s start there and then look at what a transformation ready CIO looks like and how a CEO can make sure they get one.

Should a CIO Apply?

CIOs say there are a number of red flags that can be found in a job description. These include:

  • The job reports to a CFO.
  • The job is a list of technical qualifications.
  • The job says the CIO must be proficient in Microsoft Office.
  • The job is a generic description cut/paste from the internet.
  • The job states a degree in computer science is either required or desired.
  • The job asks for a laundry list of technical knowledge or tech words.

CIOs suggest that a job description with the above items is for a tech job not for a modern CIO job. Former CIO Isaac Sacolick says, “The big issue is when there’s misalignment in the leadership team on goals and responsibilities. You can see this in job descriptions that do not have a focus or seem to include the kitchen sink.”

Former CIO Wayne Sadin adds, “While I have reported to two brilliant CFOs during my 30 years as a CIO, CFO reporting isn’t optimum. However, any CIO job description that includes the term ‘technical debt’ would rise to the top of my good list. I would love to work for a CEO and board of directors that know they have a problem.”

Given this, a good CIO job description should be focused on how the role helps the business provide value, and support business goals. The underlying "keeper of the lights" should always be assumed. Dennis Klemenz, CIO of Connex Credit Union, says, “If the role reports to the CEO, you will be doing interesting stuff. If it reports to the CFO, you will be hounded for nickels. If it reports to the COO, you will be automating workflows for the rest of your life.”

So, Miami University CIO David Seidl says, “make sure that the skills that are required are strategic, that it reports to the CEO, and that there is a vision for the role. The fact is, language says a lot about whether the organization gets the modern CIO role.”

Related Article: How Can CIOs Manage Strategy Through Uncertainty?

How Has the CIO Job Changed in the Last 5 Years?

Today’s successful organizations recognize CIOs are part of the business. A key skill for a CIO is being able to act as a universal translator between the business and the technology parts of the organization. Good CIOs understand business challenges and translate them so the technology side understands what value is expected. Michigan State University CIO Melissa Woo attests, “The job should have transitioned from plumber to strategist in the last five years, though I think we can acknowledge that there's still work to do in socializing the need for this transition.”

Seidl agrees and says, “The CIO role today is a strategic job. It's often outward focused, with teams keeping things running inside. We are at the cabinet level or leadership team level and participating as leaders, not as a utility and service provider.” Clearly, forward-thinking organizations see the CIO representing technology as a full business partner.

What Expertise Should Be in the CIOs Toolkit?

CIOs have a big list of skillsets and expertise. Here are some of the most important:

  • Ability to influence
  • Social and emotional intelligence
  • Implementing culture change
  • Leading innovation
  • Communications
  • Bridging diverse stakeholders
  • Curiosity
  • Empathy
  • Energy
  • Risk management

First CIO Deb Gildersleeve says, “it is very difficult to transform an organization or lead innovation without the above skills.” Seidl adds, “People are the most complex technology element in our stack. Building teams, enabling them to succeed, supporting them through change and challenges are critical. Leading in ways that align with the organization’s culture can be huge, too, although changing culture can be good.”

Related Article: CIOs: Time to Sense Transformational Needs, Create Agility

Learning Opportunities

What Mentalities, Orthodoxies and Approaches Should CIO's Jettison?

There are clearly many things and philosophies that today’s CIOs should lose if they want to become more strategic. These include:

  • If we build it, they will come.
  • We know what's good for them.
  • Tech jargon at the business table.
  • Too much focus on the process.
  • Not enough focus on the employee and customer experience.

At the same time, smart CIOs know other business leaders are more tech-savvy. Some can even pick software, but if you are excluded from the selection something is clearly wrong. Gildersleeve says, “When we don't get a seat at the table for selecting software (shouldn't happen but it does) we need to lose the attitude that the selection could not possibly be right for the business."

Meanwhile, Sadin says, “Any orthodoxy should be jettisoned. It is important to be constantly scanning the business and technology horizon for threats and opportunities. With this said, cutting IT costs is almost meaningless. It is better to realign IT’s focus to top-line growth or business process efficiency and get a bigger bang for IT spend.”

What Should CEOs Look for in a CIO Interview?

CEOs should start by looking for industry experience. Being a CIO is no longer as easily transferable between industries. Beyond this, CEOs should look for skills, empathy, adaptability, innovative thinking and a great sense of humor. Sacolick says there should be, "two-way listening happening during the interview. Candidate CIOs should, also, ask smart and relevant questions and share ideas.”

Adding on, Gildersleeve says, “CEOs should look for the ability to discuss learnings over their career and how they would handle differently with hindsight. I think it is also important that CIO candidates show they are able to evolve and build teams.” This matters because the CIO should be a strategic partner who can explain the cost/benefit of a technology transition. They should, also, be a peer who interacts well with the entire leadership team.

Clearly, there should also be chemistry. As a CEO, could you stand sitting next to them on a long airplane ride? Klemenz says, “Determine if the candidate is fit for you. You need a CIO that you can work with. Next, do they have a vision. You need a CIO who is a visionary. That's why you hire a CIO! Next, assess their people skills. And lastly, it is a good sign if they have creative hobbies.”

Seidl adds, “Look for someone who continues to learn and challenge themselves. Someone who doesn't believe they have all of the answers, and who sources ideas beyond their own head. As well, look for a person who can partner with others, and connect business and IT to serve the organization.”

Parting Words: Look for Personal Fit, Vision in CIO

The CIO role has certainly changed over the last several years. It is a business role that needs to fit with the CEO to prosper.

The CEO should follow what the Knight in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" says: "Choose wisely." CEOs should look for personal fit and vision. And finally, they should realize they are looking for a transformer first and a technologist second.

About the author

Myles Suer

Myles Suer is the leading influencer of CIOs, according to Leadtail. He is the director of solutions marketing at Alation and also the facilitator of the #CIOChat.

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