CIO Development

Article How to be a Top CIO

What are the common qualities and experience among the top CIO performers? By Andy McCue. Published by Wednesday 06 June 2007

With technology increasingly at the heart of most organisations the opportunity is there for CIOs to play a more strategic boardroom role. But what are the skills and experience needed to land that top seat and is it a help or a hindrance to have a degree in computer science and an IT background? Andy McCue talks to a leading CIO headhunter and a CIO career development coach about what it takes to be a top IT leader.

The CIO50 2007 identifies the 50 most influential and innovative IT leaders in the UK but what are the attributes, experience and qualities that actually make a top CIO today?

The general wisdom put forward from various quarters over the last few years is that as the CIO role becomes more business-focused there is less need to have a person with a technical background fill those shoes at the top table. But new research yet to be released challenges that view. Brinley Platts, chairman of and co-author of the Expanding the Mandate report for CSC’s Leading Edge Forum, has found that coming up through the IT department is a common trait for top CIOs and those who have successfully gone on to become COO or even CEO.

Platts explains: “What they have all got is a serious grounding in IT. In the first half of their career they do the ‘grand tour of IT’ and have a good look at a load of IT, maybe for seven to 10 years.” A quick look at the profiles of those on the CIO50 backs that view, with a significant number going on from computer sciences or mathematics degrees to IT support and programming roles and then IT management. Platts adds: “What you need at the top of the organisation is someone who can bridge both worlds. And a general manager can’t do that.”

For some of the top CIOs a spell in consulting is often a familiar entry on their CV, which gives them wider project management, business and influencing skills. Again that is borne out by a quick look at the profiles of those on the CIO50, such as LCH Clearnet’s Martin Taylor and RBS’s Stephen Brannan. Peter Breen, partner at global executive headhunter firm Heidrick & Struggles, says: “A blend of consulting and line management is helpful. The best consultants get good results by influencing.”

Mentoring and personal development are also key factors in enabling good IT people to step up the ladder into that CIO or wider business role. Breen says: “One of the common features we see is that there is an absolute correlation between good-quality leaders and the quantity and quality of mentorship they have had. The very best CIOs have been very well mentored.”

Dedication and commitment to personal development is often what marks out the top CIOs. Platts says: “They are lifelong learners and work on all the soft skills such as leadership.” And leadership is one of the key attributes of the very best CIO – not just leadership of the IT function. Breen says: “It is leadership as opposed to management. In today’s world they have to create leadership to inspire the IT people otherwise they will walk. That’s tough for a lot of IT people who come up the conventional route. They need to have a presence.” But Platts, who has worked for many years coaching CIOs on leadership, says it is something that can be acquired. “Some people take naturally to leadership but it is definitely a set of learned skills. They need some clarity in the role and mission they have taken on and that then gives them an edge.”

At some point, however, to make it to the top of the tree the background of the top CIOs shows most make a break out of IT and spend some time in a completely different business role. Platts says: “They take the opportunity to get more involved in the business – and not just as the IT guy on a business project. In some sense they have crossed over to the other side. It is the bridging piece. They never really lose the customer and business orientation after that and they get the opportunity to think, plan and behave more strategically.”

But even then the CIO needs to be proactive in making his or her voice heard and, more importantly, count in the boardroom. Breen says: “It’s depressing how many IT people bore the pants off their CEOs by talking about technology. The best CIO first and foremost understands the business and can help develop where the business is heading and be accountable for the profitability of the company.”

An underlying ambition and restlessness then often propels a few of the best CIOs onto wider COO or CEO roles – such as Citigroup’s Ian Cramb. Platts says: “A lot of people don’t make that breakthrough. It entails a lot of personal risk and putting your head above the parapet.”

Of course, individuals with these qualities and experience are in limited supply and that means the top CIOs can command big remuneration packages. Breen says that while some financial services positions pay millions of pounds, the CIO of a global corporation where IT is important but not pivotal can expect to pocket a salary of around ????300,000 plus bonuses and long-term incentive plans.

Put simply, according Breen: “The good CIO is no longer different to any other top executive.”