Chief Information Officer

Allan Hoffman /

November 05, 2007

True or false: As an organization’s technology leader, the typical chief information officer (CIO) is immersed in the details of programming, databases and other technologies.

That job description may have been true 10 to 15 years ago, but not today. With technology playing an increasingly important role in business, CIOs actually spend less time on technology specifics and significantly more time working with other executives to determine how technology can support business goals.

In fact, today’s CIOs decide how technology can improve and enable business processes, cut costs and even generate revenue. They also have a say in crafting a company’s overall strategy. In an environment where technology is viewed as central to an organization’s competitiveness, CIOs must be adept at educating other C-level executives about technology initiatives and implications.

“It’s becoming less of a technology position and more of an organizational-change position,” says James Ingle, CIO of the Revere Group, a business transformation and IT consulting firm.

A Broadening Role

Companies in the market for CIOs are no longer seeking executives with an “IT and technical bent,” opting instead for those with “a much broader, sophisticated business acumen and understanding,” says David Nosal, CEO of executive recruiting firm Nosal Partners. “CEOs of organizations are looking for CIOs to provide guidance and counsel on business issues.”

Indeed, the results of CIO magazine’s “The State of the CIO ’06” survey support this view:

– CIOs cited communication (70 percent), strategic thinking and planning (59 percent), and the ability to lead and motivate staff (54 percent) as among the key skills for the job.

- While CIOs most frequently listed IT (71 percent) as their primary area of work experience and expertise, they also listed business operations (44 percent), consulting (42 percent) and administration (25 percent) as other areas in which they gained experience.

According to Ingle, “They have to be an educator, a teacher, a salesman and a coach.”

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Moving Out of the Techie Box

And that means CIOs, who typically rise through the ranks of a company’s IT department, eventually need to focus on areas far beyond their IT expertise.

“I love technology,” says Will Weider, CIO of Ministry Health Care and Affinity Health System, who writes the Candid CIO blog. “Unfortunately, my job has very little to do with technology at this point. The focus is on strategy, changing culture and project management.”

Ingle concurs. “You have to understand technology well, but you have to surround yourselves by the deeper technologists,” he says. “It never hurts to have that deep technical skill, but the bigger key is to know how to manage and motivate people to do the heavy lifting and the project management.”

Prepare to Become a CIO

Weider counsels would-be CIOs to:

  • Lead high-visibility projects, and deliver results in a clear, measurable way.
  • Track success metrics, and report on the value of projects.
  • Remember that success comes not from implementing a new system, but rather from realizing its expected benefits.
  • Discuss IT in terms of what it means to the business.
  • Bring more to the table than your IT knowledge by demonstrating solid knowledge of operations, strategy and management.

Of course, a certain amount of salesmanship is necessary, as is an ability to navigate corporate bureaucracies with political skill.

“Many of the CIOs of the past, and even today, aren’t really wired to do that well,” Ingle says, citing the need for CIOs to have top-notch communication and presentation skills. “For many who are not wired well for that type of activity, it’s not that comfortable a thing.”

Given the place of technology in today’s organizations, CIOs play a key, highly visible role in working with other C-level executives to set strategies and make decisions that reverberate throughout the company.

“I feel like I really make a difference in the lives of the people that work here,” Weider says. “My CEO has goals, but he leaves it up to me to determine how to get the job done.”

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