Rising to the CIO slot requires technology and people skills

If you want to be promoted from an IT staff role to the CIO position, your key task is to drive business through technology innovation.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.-- So you want to be a CIO? You need to be innovative yet pragmatic; intelligent and personable; a communicator and a collaborator. And you need technology and business smarts. In a phrase, you need to be everyone's hero.

These are the qualities chief information officers (CIOs) at MIT Sloan's annual CIO Symposium cited in describing what companies are looking for in a CIO today. They also offered advice on how to make the transition from an IT staff role to the position of CIO.

Bob Brennan, the president and CEO of Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc., wants a CIO who is an innovator with a technical background, has business savvy and strong communication skills.

"So basically, we're looking for the purple squirrel," Brennan said. "Someone who can drive competitive advantage; someone who has been with a company during times of aggressive growth, not just contractions. … The CIO of today needs to be more like a COO [chief operating officer]."

The CIO as superhero
One common theme was the difficulty of the CIO's job; these executives get pulled in many different directions, and they must drive business growth through technology innovation -- with results that aren't disastrous. One aspiring CIO said it's common knowledge that the average CIO lasts only two years before getting burned out -- or pushed out -- of their position.

I heard that CIO actually stands for 'Career is over.'
Anne Margulies,
CIOthe Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Anne Margulies, the CIO for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, called herself an "accidental" CIO. "When the governor urged me to take on the job, I hesitated -- especially since I heard that CIO actually stands for 'Career is over,'" she said. "That certainly wasn't a path I wanted to take."

But the CIO job is an IT pro's natural path up the corporate ladder. One attendee who requested anonymity said that his company's CIO took the job as a way to move out of IT and get closer to the board room. "His first task as CIO was to fix a videoconferencing issue for the executives in the board room. That wasn't exactly what he wanted to be doing."

And like many CIOs, when Margulies took the job three years ago, she inherited a mess.

"There hadn't been a strategic technology mission since 2003, so that was my first order of business," she told attendees. Now she is consolidating 100 different IT organizations in the state into eight, streamlining operations and standardizing the state's IT infrastructure.

What it takes to be a CIO Attendees who described the attributes of a good CIO used the word innovative, in part because many technical people defy new technologies and change. "If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less," Brennan said.

Anthony Sirabella, the CIO of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo (GMO), an investment management firm in Boston, said one of the most important pieces of advice he can give aspiring CIOs is to learn to translate tech talk into the language of business.

When you speak [executives'] language, you'll get invited to the table.
Anthony Sirabella,
CIOGrantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo

"If I came to a meeting wearing a beanie with a spinning top and talking technology, they would look at me and think, 'He's just another geek,' and they'd never invite me back," Sirabella said. "So learn the business side. Interact with business folks and understand how money is made and how it is lost. When you speak their language, you'll get invited to the table."

A big part of a CIO's job is change management, so knowing how to introduce a new technology without rousing a massive user backlash is critical.

"It's the CIO's job to move people forward. They have to rip off the Band-Aid and force people to migrate to a new technology," said Chris Capossela, the senior vice president of information worker products at Microsoft.

Shawn Banerji, a managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates in New York whose job is to recruit CIO candidates for companies, said there are a few key character traits he seeks in a potential CIO.

To be a CIO, you have to be a good listener with an analytical mind to understand cause and effect in an enterprise. He also looks for an influencer who has the ability to sell an agenda and a strategy to business leaders. A CIO also needs to exhibit leadership and change management skills.

Where to find this type of person? "When I'm looking for a CIO outside of the hiring organization, I find them in two places: other IT organizations or in the ranks of IT consultants," Banerji said. "I do not choose people in sales and marketing. They have to have tenure in technology."

But when companies hire CIOs from within, about 20% of the time these hires come from the finance or business side, because business is such a critical part of a CIO's job, Banerji said.


Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter

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