CIO Development

Article The way to become a top CIO

by Julia Vowler

The cookie-cutter chief information officer has yet to be invented, so organisations need to take great pains in sourcing the extraordinary mixture of business leadership and technical understanding that makes up a great CIO.

Brinley Platts, founder of the IMPACT programme for IT leadership, and currently chair of CIODEVELOPMENT.COM identifies four sources of CIOs. “They can come up from within IT, come across from non-IT, be brought in from outside the organisation as a change agent, or be brought in as a consultant,” he says. Statistically, by far the most well-trodden route is still through IT – about twice as many CIOs come through IT as any other source, although half are recruited from outside the company. “IT functions are predominantly run by executives with a successful background in technology, who run large teams and manage major assets in the service of a complex business which does not understand much about what is going on in IT,” says Platts.

Inevitably, however, “CIOs recruited externally may have relationship issues with their colleagues. In addition, CIOs from a technology background are often seen as outsiders to the business, and alien to their own corporate peers. Their colleagues, for example, will not know how the CIO is likely to behave in a fight, or what their past history is, whether they understand the unwritten rules of the organisation, and overall will not be seen as ‘one of us’. They may also face issues with their new IT department. “Half of your new team may well have been there between five and 15 years, and will, therefore, doubtless understand the organisation’s technology better than you. “You will be seen as an unknown quantity, and there may be some resentment – especially by those who think they should have got your job. You may be seen as both an interloper and a threat, and that the ‘old days were better’,” says Platts.

However, the position of the ‘professional CIO’ who has come up through the ranks of the IT department, whether promoted internally or coming in from another company’s IT department, is more easily explained than the CIO who is appointed from within the company, but who has no direct experience of IT at all. “Some organisations appoint the CIO from within, but not from within the IT department. These ‘executive CIOs’ are typically appointed when the chief executive has become so frustrated with IT that he gives it to a more experienced, proven executive.” The CEO’s assumption is that IT will now be in safe, familiar hands, run by someone whose capability is known, and who is ‘one of us’ so far as the business executives of the company are concerned. But all too often the appointment proves temporary or a mistake – certainly for the CIO in question. On average, the executive CIO lasts two years in the CIO role, whereas the internal IT professional CIO lasts seven years, says Platts. “Usually executive CIOs retire in the CIO post – they very, very rarely get back into another executive role in the company. For them, CIO can truly mean ‘career is over’.”

However, there are two types of exception. The first is where a company has a deliberate standing tradition – and therefore appropriate expectations and relationships – of always appointing the CIO from outside IT.

“Unilever, for example, used to have a policy of putting general managers into IT,” says Platts.

The second is where the executive CIO is quite clearly regarded as a temporary post. “For example, where the internal, technology-based candidate is not quite ready to be CIO themselves, but needs, say, 18 months of seasoning. For the duration an executive CIO can run IT and then return to their own general management role and the internal, professional IT candidate can take over as CIO.”

The two other types of CIO always come in from outside the organisation, and both can be exceptionally successful in the role. The first of these is the ‘paratrooper CIO’. “The paratrooper has a very strong background in technology, and understands how to manage major projects and IT suppliers. They will stay between three and five years in one organisation, and then want new challenges,” says Platts. The paratrooper CIO’s forte is major transformational change across a range of industry sectors. “They will not come in to a ‘business as usual’ situation – they like burning platforms,” says Platts. Having put the fires out and achieved their goals, they will move on, leaving a stable situation behind them.

The final type is the ‘consultant CIO’. “They are a type of paratrooper, but they tend to stay in one sector, often the one where they have been a consultant in. They join the company at a very high executive level, and often having been a consultant to the business already. “They always come in by invitation and stay about four years on average. The consultant CIO will do transformational change, but they will do it more slowly. They will be more diplomatic, and less brutal in their impact than the paratrooper CIO.”

If the paratrooper CIO is the ‘CIO as hero’, how does the professional CIO make that crucial change? According to Platts, it depends on how any type of CIO reacts to the constraints on their position: not being regarded as ‘one of us’ by senior business management, and with wariness, and possibly resentment, by the IT department.

“How are you going to be able to operate, given that your choices and possibilities are severely limited by factors outside your control, which is your own career history?” asks Platts. It boils down to a question of character, he says. “Careers are driven by character. But with serious personal development via coaching, the professional CIO can develop all the strengths and attributes that enable them to be a paratrooper CIO.

“Most paratrooper CIOs have come from professional CIO roles – but they must be mentally prepared to make the transition, which can be very traumatic. Above all, your new colleagues – both in the business and in the IT department – will see you as a paratrooper so you must be able to respond to that – to thrive in that situation.” And all CIOs, says Platts, “must find a way to have a good relationship with the CEO, who is their sponsor. As for the paratrooper CIOs, they would not go into the position without a good relationship with the CEO.”

What holds most professional CIOs back from becoming a paratrooper CIOs is their perception of risk, says Platts. Many professional CIOs are risk averse. “They are comfortable with working in the same place, with the same people, who all have well established relationships with each other and know the company’s culture and corporate values and respect them, and are themselves respected. They work hard, keep their noses clean, they do well by the business, and the business does well by them.” Stability, predictability and business as usual is what they value and consider low risk to themselves.

Conversely, the paratrooper CIO values change above all – plus autonomy. “When taking on a new position, they already have all the skills, traits and knowledge about business change, and arrive at the new organisation with what that organisation needs, but lacks,” says Platts. “Once they have completed the business transformation programme they feel bored and restless – they know they will lose their edge if they stay too long – more than three or four years.”

Although operating at such intensity with such high stakes may seem a risky career move to the professional CIO, their own preferences may not be risk free either. “There are no jobs for life, so it can be safer for CIOs to keep testing the market and developing their own CIO skills, or they may end up beached.”

Platts advises opening up career options by working on your character. “You can change through using behavioural techniques, such as coaching, to give yourself choices where you previously had none. The most powerful CIOs have choices as a distinguishing factor of their careers.”

The main types of chief information officer

The professional CIO

The traditional, technology-based CIO who has come up through their own organisation*s IT department. Average duration: seven years.

The executive CIO

A general manager or senior executive from within the organisation, appointed by the CEO in search of a *trustee* to run a troubled department. Can be used as a caretaker CIO prior to the permanent appointment of a professional CIO. Average duration: two years.

The consultant CIO

A supply-side specialist brought in by invitation of the CEO. Skilled and experienced in board level operation, often with prior experience of the firm. Average duration: four years.

The paratrooper CIO

A senior, seasoned professional CIO, brought in at the CEO’s invitation, specialising in turnarounds and major business transformation programmes. Likely to get bored when his/her goals are achieved and move on. Average duration: three to five years.

Contact Brinley Platts on 07973 745 640 at CIODEVELOPMENT.COM to find out how you can engage your colleagues and team on the issues raised by this article.