So, you want to be a CIO? The general perceived path is that you grow up on the technical side and then you gradually get more exposure to the business, especially if your organization is proactive and really leverages IT. The road to the corner suite for IT executives is usually through the development of a highly focused expertise. It is exactly this expert mentality that makes the technician or executive useful to his CIO. The more senior an IT executive becomes, the more he is expected to manage. The focus, however, remains largely on IT issues. This creates the conundrum. To be a CIO, you need highly developed business skills -- experience that is not always immediately offered to the IT executive. This is experience that you will have to seek out on your own.
Moreover, some people don't have the interpersonal skills, presentation skills, know-how and education, or even the interest, to make the change from a business mind driving IT to an IT mind driving technology. At this point, you have to self-assess: "Do I like and have the skills to become more business-facing rather technical-facing?"
Furthermore, if you have an eye on the CIO spot, you must realize that not only is the air different at the top, but also once you get there, the expectations are increasingly higher and more heavily scrutinized. The new CIOs will be highly strategic and will be helping to drive and decide strategy. In fact, we have noticed that segmentation is happening in the role of the CIO. As a consequence, two types of CIOs are emerging: the traditional CIO who embodies a "technology mentality," and the new business-minded CIO who is expected to literally outperform his function, a phenomenon that happened with CFOs in the 1990s. Like super CFOs, CIOs will be expected to be nimble and highly strategic if they are going to earn a seat at the table with the top management team.
What are the attributes of a rising IT executive? In July, CIO US magazine published the results of its new awards program, Ones to Watch. According to executive editor Edward Prewitt, upon reviewing the nominations, CIO's editors concluded that the honorees all had three things in common:
Vision: An ability to see solutions in often chaotic situations.
Influence: The capability to engage business users and other stakeholders in IT programs in a way that doesn't depend on the power of their position.
Execution: The bottom-line ability to deliver, time and again.
"Each of our honorees demonstrated all of these traits. In doing so, they benefited their companies, made their CIOs look good and served as testaments to the importance of good leadership development," Prewitt said.
The nominees were further evaluated based on their demonstrated experience in several areas, including whether they had held jobs within and outside of IT, and their job accomplishments. Those who were ultimately categorized as "rising stars in IT" were also found to be "risk takers, team builders, mentors and change agents."
Grooming yourself for the CIO position, therefore, will require developing these traits in yourself. Begin by following the five steps outlined below.
1. Understand your strengths and weaknesses. It is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your interests. The business side of the CIO role will not be for everyone. Self-assessment is required here. If you really have an intense interest in becoming CIO, then you'll need to spend the time and energy required to develop the necessary skills and experience. In the short term, it may even require a pay cut and several lateral moves before the investment begins to pay off. This is not a decision to be taken lightly.
2. Obtain the right tools. To make a career move to the business side, you will need the right tools. Among the key tools is education. This may take many forms, ranging from any variant of an MBA program to taking a few key courses or reading appropriate business literature.
3. Gain experience. It is not enough to just have the knowledge; you will need proven on-the-job experience. The business-oriented CIO will have experience applying his business knowledge to real-life problems. If you are fortunate enough to have an employer who values cross-functional training, then seek opportunities outside of the IT function. This will give you a better understanding of the business and equip you with the appropriate language and experience you will need to make better overall leadership decisions.
4. Develop presentation and interpersonal skills. Focus on developing your communication skills by actively participating in and spearheading group discussions and external presentations. While this rule applies to all leaders, the value of this skill set is sometimes initially overlooked by those in a highly technical function. The earlier these skills are honed, the easier it will be to obtain the appropriate cross-functional experience required to move up the corporate ladder. Enroll in classes and workshops if you need dedicated training. You can also practice your technique by participating in industry organization planning committees and trade show panel discussions.
5. Find a mentor. Find a business mentor within the organization who can help you understand the key drivers of the business and the competitive landscape. It is important, as you develop your business acuity, that you have someone with whom you can try out ideas and receive informal coaching and support.
By adhering to this road map, you will develop the necessary skills and attributes to one day pursue the coveted role of CIO.
Richard A. Spitz is global managing director of technology at Korn/Ferry International. He is based at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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