There are many qualities all senior employees - especially those in the C-suite – need to have in order to succeed. A Chief Information Officer (CIO) is no different and requires some specific qualities, skills and attributes if they are to be successful.
In no particular order, here are what I see as the most important attributes of a good CIO:
Business knowledge and commercial acumen
This is critical. Regardless of the type of organisation (e.g. a business, government agency or not-for-profit), the CIO needs to understand both the business itself and the commercial realities around the acquisition and deployment of technology within the organisation.
The CIO must grasp what the organisation hopes to achieve. The digital strategy sits alongside and enables the business strategy and this is almost impossible without an understanding of the overall strategy.
Communication skills and empathy
Technology change projects are just as much about the people as the technology – often more so. In fact, the vast majority of failed change projects fall over due to people issues rather than technology.
Taking the time to listen, understand and enquire about the future direction of the organisation is essential, and the foundation of the development of a technology strategy and roadmap to help the organisation achieve its goals.
Once the strategy is developed, the CIO must be able to articulate the business benefits and investment required to get the business case approved. The CIO must also communicate the change to the rest of the organisation and, importantly, bring them on the journey.
A good CIO has the ability to forge new connections, build relationships and explain complex and difficult concepts in simple terms without resorting to jargon.
Albert Einstein once said, “In the future, people will make up quotes I said and put them on the internet.”
OK, that’s not strictly true, but he did say, “The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity… out of discord, harmony… and out of difficulty, opportunity”.
That may sound more like a motivational speech, but those 3 elements – simplicity, harmony and opportunity – are highly relevant for success in a leadership role.
Given the complexity and rate of change in the technology space, the ability to present ideas simply, identify opportunities to use technology for business benefit, and bring people on the journey is extremely valuable.
Curiosity and willingness to learn
A good CIO will not only be willing to learn as their career and role evolves but must be curious about technology and always on the lookout for ways to help the organisation.
While something of a cliché, the old saying that technology is a journey and not a destination does hold true. The job of a CIO is never done.
A good CIO will not just value a stable and reliable set of solutions or technologies, but also be aware of future business plans and have their eyes open to ways technology can enable and support those plans.
Technical and digital skills
Some may expect to see this as the first item on the list, and while I did state it was in no particular order, we deliberately didn’t list this one first. Why?
It seems self-evident that a well-rounded CIO must have a strong grounding in the digital space, and it’s true that most CIOs come from that background.
However, it’s less important that the CIO has been “on the tools” and far more important that they understand technology and how to use it to achieve business or organisational outcomes.
The CIO is a strategic business role, not a hands-on technology one.
The best CIOs are visionaries and can identify opportunities to use technology to create competitive advantage – which in some cases can be a game-changer.
They look within their organisations, they keep tabs on what the competition is doing, and most importantly they scan the horizon for emerging trends, technologies and solutions that can help the organisation deliver on its business plan.
This is also where the “understanding technology” piece comes in. Often, a good change project is seeded by the call of “there must be a better way”.
Understanding technology generally provides a far more grounded approach to how it can make a real difference – even if the specifics and research come later.
It can be lonely (and scary!) when you’re either leading the pack or swimming against the tide.
Take the first iPhone design, for example – they didn’t have enough space for all the keys they needed (remember what the Blackberry looked like?), so they replaced all of them with just one – the Home key.
Everyone said it would never work. Good people left the company. Investors were nervous. But it was a game-changer.
Doing the research but going with your gut takes confidence, and an experienced CIO knows when it’s right to go with the flow and when it’s right to forge a new path.
Last but by no means least, a good CIO will be pragmatic by nature.
Being able to balance the requirements (and sometimes wish list) of the organisation with the budget and available solutions is an important skill, as is figuring out which battles are worth fighting to get the outcome.
- Build or buy?
- Local or international?
- Proven performer or the new kid on the block?
- Existing technology or an emerging potential game-changer?
- A solution that meets 80% of our needs and is available right now, or one that will be ready in 2 years but do everything we currently want?
- What’s best for the organisation (vs what looks best on the CIO’s CV)?
These and many other choices are presented on a seemingly daily basis, and a good CIO will know how to navigate their way through and make decisions that will benefit the organisation, now and in the future.
So, just to sum it up. These are all the qualities I think are vital to the role of a CIO:
- Business knowledge and commercial acumen
- Communication skills and empathy
- Curiosity and willingness to learn
- Technical and digital skills
Unsurprisingly, finding good CIO candidates with all the above attributes is not easy, and employing one isn’t cheap.
I’ve kept this article general, but here’s the pitch:
You don't have to employ someone full-time, and we’ve done the hard yards for you in finding the best people. CIO Studio offers a great CIO-as-a-Service solution for short-term projects or ongoing assignments.
All our Core Advisers have the above qualities and more. We’re ready to help you with your digital journey – get in touch to find out how.
Mike Dennehy is a Core Advisor for CIO Studio who helps organisations reach their potential through digital and technology.
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