What Skills Does Today's CIO Need?

Over the last few weeks, I've been speaking with a number of senior IT managers and there seems to be a consensus that the pace of change, both in technology and the business, is starting to become overwhelming. By and large, these were experienced practitioners, often with two or more decades in senior IT roles so you'd think they be well-equipped to deal with whatever comes their way. But many seemed overwhelmed and were struggling to balance the need for 24/7 availability, highly secure systems and the ability to be flexible and pivot rapidly. What does it take to be a great CIO today?

#1 - Experience matters

One of the common characteristics of the managers who were struggling was that they had been in the same company for a long time. That gave them great depth of knowledge but not huge breadth. So, when someone proposes something new, that is outside their relatively narrow band of expertise they struggled to adapt.

The question I asked my self was "Does this person have ten years of experience or one year of experience ten times?".

Great CIOs have breadth as well as depth. Experience across several different business domains is valuable as it brings diverse thinking into a business and greater adaptability.

#2 - Teams

Sporting analogies are often trite but I think they hold true here.

A CIO can't have deep domain knowledge of everything that is going on. Like the captain or coach of a netball or football team, they can't play in every position. But they can understand the game and move players and change tactics according to what is happening.

Great CIOs surround themselves with team-mates who complement their weaknesses - who can play the positions they can't. And they trust those people to do their jobs.

#3 - Skills

The two best CIOs I worked for, before getting the gig myself, came from non-technical backgrounds. If you asked them to configure a server or write some code they would be completely at sea. But what they could do was provide an environment where the people with those skills could execute them with minimal outside interference.

In the past, the path to running IT started with being a great practitioner, then moving up to being a team leader, and on to more senior management and leadership roles. That path is still valid but it's not a prerequisite for being a CIO any more.

The key skills are in being able to ask technical experts the right questions to guide them and in managing the rest of the senior management in the business as to what they can have and how they can achieve the business outcomes they require in a safe and reliable way.

#4 - Business acumen

Today's CIO has to be a master negotiator in order to navigate the C-suite, vendors and their team.

This sort of fits into the skills section above but I think it deserves to be considered separately. Today's IT leaders need to be the business' most knowledgeable generalist. They need to understand what's happening in finance, HR, marketing and the CEO's brain, look at where those things coalesce and where they clash.

Then the CIO needs to be able to understand all that and communicate it. The CIO can be the most important person in the business at understanding how the company's strategy and its ability to execute come together. But at the same time they need to be able step out of that helicopter and the high view it provides and grab the microscope to understand how one small change in a system could impact another.

That's a rare skill I've only seen, in over 20 years working in the business, done really well just a handful of times.

#5 - Communication

This skill is embedded in all the others I've mentioned but I think it's the most critical one. CIOs need to be able to adapt their communication style to a massive cross-section of different people. There's potential for a CIO to need to work with factory managers, the operators of logistics services such as warehouses and factories, software developers, cloud service providers and the CFO - all in the same morning.

That requires being able to communicate in terms that are meaningful to each group without sounding they just picked up the latest business jargon guidebook.

Think back to the best IT leaders you've worked with. What made them stand out? And what was it about the worst IT leaders you've seen that would make you want to run and hide?


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