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5 Skills CEOs Prize In CIOs

You want to be a CIO? The road to the top isn't about what you want. It's about fulfilling the expectations of your boss and peers.

I get this question all the time: What should I focus on if I want to be a CIO someday? The answer is complicated and doesn't always please the person who asked.

You must understand technology, of course, but most of what it takes to become an effective CIO has nothing to do with technology. The better question to ask is: Which skills do most CEOs want their CIOs to have?

So let's discuss what your boss will expect of you. Here's where it gets complicated. Regardless of whether the CIO reports to the CEO, has a dotted line to the CEO, or is married to and has children with the CEO, the CEO is your ultimate boss. And the CEO very much cares about the folks who run other mission-focused business units: your peers. To make matters more complex, those peers are also your customers. Thus, the first of the expectations of a CIO:

1. Customer management
A great CEO will want you to impact the business positively, through new products, re-engineering, automation, etc. But the CEO doesn't want you causing problems with people who rely on you. Call them your peers or your customers, your boss still doesn't want problems.

It's not about being a yes man or woman. Nor is it about being a pit bull -- those kinds of conflicts land right in the CEO's lap. It's about being able to have difficult conversations when IT screws up, and admitting to those screw-ups. Or being able to point out, constructively, when line departments are causing problems, like when they change requirements 12 times during the course of a project.

You need to resolve those kinds of problems without most of them rising up to Mom or Dad, because if your CEO is spending most of his or her time brokering your little conflicts, expect your tenure to be short.

Required development: diplomacy and emotional intelligence. Pompous jerks need not apply.

2. Staff management
A great CEO will want you to develop a team that takes pride in its work, of course, not only because it's good for the company long term, but also because it keeps HR grievances and costly turnover low and productivity-friendly morale high.

[Don't forget, you also need a strategy. Read Digital Business Strategy: 8 Gut-Check Questions.]

The challenge is most enterprises (also known as bureaucracies) have rules that seem crazy to employees, yet the CEO will expect you to develop a sane team without the aforementioned problem. It's possible to build such a team, but it requires an intense focus on mission, an appreciation for process with a focus on outcomes, and a humane approach to managing people that still emphasizes accountability. You also need to hold yourself to the same standards you hold your employees. And you need to manage your own stress levels so that you can perform at your best.

Required development: emotional intelligence, HR management, organizational development, candor, courage, and common sense. Dilbert bosses need not apply.

3. Vendor management
Your boss wants the company's technology vendors to be invisible, but your boss also wants the results that a specialized vendor can provide. When a $2 million tech project fails "because of the vendor," your boss won't be looking at the vendor. He or she will be looking at you. It's your vendor to manage; you must have the skills to do so.

Many of the skills that apply to customer and staff management apply here as well. While there's a time and a place to pull the plug on a vendor contract -- and I have done so -- there must be a lot of action in between. Most projects and contracts that are going off the rails can be righted with a little candor and TLC, recognizing that everybody wants the project to succeed. Tough guy tactics and lawyering up usually benefit the lawyers only.

Being pals with vendors: bad idea. Such relationships can lock you into a place that's bad for your company and hamper your negotiation leverage. Ducking

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Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
2/24/2014 | 4:51:22 PM
Re: Vendor Management
Agree that in many cases a gut check is useful.  But many large organizations -- not just gov -- have explicit rules regarding conflict of interest.  If you dig hard enough into purchasing policies, I bet you'll find them at your org, gov or not. 
User Rank: Author
2/24/2014 | 3:29:06 PM
Re: Marketplace Awareness and Evaluation
Chris, nice to see you here. Thanks for weighing in. Juggling cloud services will be an example of what you cite. Laurie
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/24/2014 | 1:44:31 PM
Re: Vendor Management
I think most of us have "gut checks" for such ethical questions. If a proferred gift makes that little voice in the back of your mind ask, "is this a good idea?" -- it's probably not.
User Rank: Apprentice
2/24/2014 | 12:46:01 PM
Marketplace Awareness and Evaluation
Another critical skill CEO's *should* prize is an awareness of the outside world of technologies, services and information and an abiity to apply a strategic business lens to them to help the organization evaluate and adopt the right ones.  The CIO and IT's job is becomming so much more about integrating 3rd party capabilities that the CIO who understands the digital tech marketplace will be in high demand.

Bringing the outside-in is one of the two imperatives for the Digital CIO.
User Rank: Author
2/24/2014 | 11:51:22 AM
Dilbert bosses
Your Dilbert bosses comment made me laugh. It has been a long time since I met a CIO who had much in common with Dilbert bosses. CIOs these days must be master communicators and genuine team players. Also, humane management = team loyalty = talent retention. And what CEO doesn't prize talent retention?
User Rank: Author
2/24/2014 | 11:16:30 AM
Vendor Management
Jonathan, where's the line between building strong relationships with trusted IT vendors and treating them like BFFs? I know government enterprises are under more restrictions than the average private sector enterprise, but what about vendors paying for customers to visit them on-site, for them to speak at their user conferences, for tickets to sporting events, even for lunches? What's kosher and what's not, in your view?
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