A typical Chief Information Officer (CIO) is often faced with a daunting set of challenges. First and foremost, they’re tasked with ensuring their organization’s tech stack can help their company fulfill its strategies. CIO career success hinges on expertly managing resources, negotiating with other stakeholders, and evaluating the organization’s tech needs well into the future. What CIO skills are actually needed to succeed?
If you’re a tech professional interested in a leadership role, you may see a CIO role as your ultimate career goal. Here’s some good news: a wide variety of tech roles can ladder into a CIO position, including (but not limited to) project managers, software engineers, data scientists, and more. Many years of experience in a technical role are essential, as are “soft skills” such as empathy and communication.
Many tech professionals who want to end up in the C-suite may also target a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role, which has a similar focus on ensuring an organization’s tech stack can fulfill broader strategy and business needs.
Let’s break down the most important skills for CIOs, along with CIO qualifications and other things you need to know!
Baseline CIO Skills
How do CIOs develop people skills and competencies? It’s a lifelong quest: constant interaction with team members and technology management will allow you to develop solid listening skills. Once you can listen effectively, you’ll understand better how to communicate your needs while taking those of others into account.
Besides soft skills, here are some other baseline skills a CIO might need:
Technical knowledge: If you’ve come up through the ranks as a tech professional, you likely have a good deal of technical aptitude in your chosen specialization. However, a CIO needs to become familiar with all the technologies used throughout an organization. That means a lot of learning from the teams that report into you, especially when it comes to cutting-edge tech such as machine learning and automation.
Business skills: It’s no coincidence that many CIOs take at least a few business courses during their career (and many also go for their MBA). As a senior executive, you’ll need to know how to balance budgets, allocate resources, understand data scientists’ analysis of the organizations’ datasets and strategies, and more.
Strategy: All CIOs must see the “big picture.” How will your current tech strategy play out in five or ten years? What will you need to do to achieve the most successful outcome? How does the company’s tech stack power those outcomes on a tactical level?
Industry-specific knowledge: Whether you opt to work in finance, manufacturing, or some other sector, a CIO absolutely needs to know how that industry works, down to its buzzwords and competitors. For example, if you’re a CIO in healthcare, you’ll need to know how patient privacy regulations will impact your datasets, technology, and, ultimately, the business.
We’re in a curious moment in tech. Artificial intelligence (A.I.) and other technologies are forcing companies to undergo seismic shifts, even as companies are forced to scramble to find the tech talent they need. In this new environment, good CIOs have also mastered the following special skills:
Digital Business Transformation Success
Although digital transformation has been a top priority for years, many companies lack the data analytics or digital marketing capabilities to pivot quickly to a new business model, explained Martha Heller, CEO of Heller Search Associates.
In fact, BCG research shows that 70 percent of digital transformations fall short of their objectives, often with profound consequences. “To prove that you can succeed where others have failed, look deep inside the company,” Heller advised.
The inability to deliver fundamental change has many companies reconsidering the type of CIO they really need, added Lily Haake, head of the CIO Practice at Harvey Nash.
Examining a company’s processes and products can help you uncover and suggest opportunities to drive revenue or increase efficiency and customer engagement. For example, digitizing supply chains, automating factory tasks or using artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning for new product development are all strategies that smart CIOs have embraced.
During any job interview, be ready to describe the transformative initiatives that you’ve led and the impact those projects had, while citing examples of sub-skills such as change management, actions and strategies that make digital transformation work.
During the hiring process, provide evidence of your ability to adapt to changing circumstances and embrace new ways of working quickly. By doing so, you’ll show off that key skill of CIOs everywhere: adaptability.
For example, with budgets always under strain, endorsing the democratization of IT through distributed ownership of software or SaaS programs, distributed cloud, and the adoption of low-code app development, will show that you’re willing to make investments in technologies that are not only cost-effective but deliver fast results, Haake said.
When providing other concrete examples of your ability to adapt, such as dealing with last-minute changes from stakeholders or shifting priorities, always explain what worked and what didn’t. Admitting mistakes (along with your solutions to those mistakes) shows credibility, insight, humility and strength, she advised.
While a contemporary CIO does not need to understand how every tool or program works, they do need a clear understanding of the components and layers that comprise modern, flexible architecture. That will better allow them to plan and achieve major goals around data security, transitioning to the cloud, and digital transformation.
Being aware of the role that architecture plays in driving initiatives that have a positive impact on business results can position you as a transformative candidate—one capable of turning a digital laggard company into a digital leader.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that tech leaders need crisis management skills, including familiarity with the fundamentals, behaviors and processes to anticipate and deal with unforeseen roadblocks, talent shortages or operational issues.
Be mindful that emotional intelligence traits, including empathy and compassion, are essential for leaders whose companies and staff are impacted by crises. As you prepare situations and examples for your next interview, think about how your behaviors and emotions have affected those around you.
Diversity and Inclusion
Cultivating diversity and inclusion is no longer the sole responsibility of HR. Because research shows that companies with more diverse teams outperform those with a more homogeneous workforce, CIOs are increasingly expected to lead the way when it comes to integration and diversity initiatives.
Providing anecdotes about your achievements in improving diversity, developing talent or building a cohesive multicultural team is a great way to set yourself apart. Consider devoting a portion of your application materials to discussing your diversity efforts, since a rising number of companies will view such initiatives favorably.
The increased volume of cyberattacks during the pandemic, accelerated by the permanent transition to remote work, means that CIOs must know current and emerging threats and the best ways to prevent and mitigate various types of attacks using state-of-the-art tools, solutions and approaches.
Self-Aware CIO Leadership
No matter what your leadership style is, have an understanding of what type of leader you are and how you leverage your style and strengths to achieve results, even in uncertain times. “Are you good at empowering others, listening or believe in having an open-door policy?” Heller asked.
The more you understand about your leadership style, and its strengths and weaknesses, the more effective you’ll be during the interview and as a CIO.