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What are the top skills required to be a successful CIO?

Chief information officer (CIO) is a job title commonly given to the most senior corporate executive in charge of working with IT strategy and leadership, to support enterprise goals. 

CIOs play an important role in businesses that use technology and data, proving an essential interface between business needs, user needs, and information and communication technology. As more businesses embrace going digital, CIOs are key in forming strategy to successfully implement digital transformation.

The core elements of being a CIO will never change: researching new technologies, strategising the use of tech to promote business value, and addressing any risks associated with digital transformation.

However, CIOs are finding that their role is increasingly being involved in other areas of the business, such as in helping to control costs and increase profits using IT. Many professionals are now looking to incorporate leadership, business and technology skills to lead digital transformation efforts.

The line between IT and business is blurring

Generally, many CIOs will have a background in either IT or business, but it’s becoming increasingly essential for them to know both and to understand how the two interact. A CIO needs to combine these skillsets in order to manage IT resources and plan for all aspects of IT, including development and policy, planning, budgeting, resourcing and training. 

While having the vast tech knowledge is important, employers tend to focus on finding commercially-minded CIOs who are a good cultural fit in their company. A good CIO can surround themselves with technology experts with a deep domain knowledge; the leadership skills to motivate and influence are far harder to find.

This is something we, as recruiters, know all too well. Steve Richardson, senior executive permanents consultant at Reed Technology, explains:

“The ability to have a customer-first view when designing a solution, or even a strategy on how tech can improve the business, is so very important for a CIO. You should aim to work solutions back from the user’s perspective – whether that be an internal stakeholder, business client, or consumer – and understand how, why and when they will use the technology.

“Technology debt, i.e. creating a small quick fix with new budgets and new agendas that don’t solve the underlying issue, is common in the industry. The best CIOs are those who can make lasting positive change and see it through while underlying issues, such as legacy tech, are resolved."

Confidence

Low confidence can occur at every level, it’s important that you can build confidence in your own ability. As a leader, you need to show that you know what you’re doing. To others at your level, you need to be the spokesperson for everyone in your teams. You need to be a role model for others in your charge. Knowing what you do well and where you need work, or support from your teams, is crucial to long-term success. This applies to any field, but resonates with IT in particular, because of the sector’s fast pace.

My view is that the CIO should sit on the board, however, according to Reed Technology’s 2019/20 IT leadership survey, only 50% of IT leaders do. Those in CIO positions can overcome this by acquiring new skills and changing their mindset.

Firstly, you need to fully understand why you want to be on the board in the first place, what you can bring to the table, and how to articulate it well. Projecting yourself confidently will give greater credit to your ideas and influence.

Alternatively, you could find a mentor if you don’t feel confident in your ability – having a mentor can be beneficial to those who feel a sense of imposter syndrome.

Strong leadership

Leadership is not the same as management – it’s more abstract and harder to measure. Management is more about planning, organising, delegating, and controlling, whereas leadership is more about vision, inspiration, and motivation.

In order to be a great leader, when you first become a CIO you need to understand who your real boss is and what they want from you. The person who is really evaluating you may not be who you think it is. You must already have experience as a leader – your own leadership style is your advantage.

Understanding the state of your team is the next step for leadership, but it is often overlooked by CIOs as a concern - people management is the key to being a good leader.

The best way to organise your teams to make the most of their talents is by skills and strengths. They will be better equipped to deliver on your behalf if they work well together. Ensure that each member of the team knows their own purpose, strengths, and weaknesses.

When something goes wrong, you need to be able to recognise the crisis initially, then guide your team to stay on top of everything. This is where your management skills come in. It’s important to have an IT recovery plan for any disastrous eventuality. You must know how to manage the fallout, both on the ground and at an executive level.

Change management

Leading your teams through change is one of the most critical skills a CIO can possess. Any enhancement will impact the entire organisation. It’s best to consider the entire life cycle of the changes you make in order to ensure they’ll have a positive long-term effect.

CIOs need to keep up-to-date with the wide variety of tech options available today, which are constantly changing. You must understand how best to utilise the tech you have and which technology to introduce to suit your business needs, company-wide. With new tech being implemented, you need to support your employees in adapting to new processes.

When big changes occur in a company, the CIO needs to keep IT moving forward. This could be through business process reengineering, organisational restructuring or an entirely new strategic direction. These skills, as well as strategic communication, relationship building, business knowledge, and change management, are fundamental skills for a CIO. They’re also invaluable for board members to have.

As a CIO, you should have a good grasp of all the skills mentioned above. In order to secure a place on your board of directors, you should understand your importance to the company and make it clear to others.

If you’re looking for a new tech role or a capable employee, contact your nearest Reed Technology office.

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