6 Must-Have Skills For Aspiring CIOs

Not everybody is cut out to be a CIO. Consider these six elements that help shape a successful chief information officer.

Cindy Waxer, Contributor

April 18, 2012

4 Min Read

10 CIOs: Career Decisions I'd Do Over

10 CIOs: Career Decisions I'd Do Over

10 CIOs: Career Decisions I'd Do Over (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

At the top of every organization is the boss, the man or woman who has the ultimate responsibility for making decisions, setting directions, and making sure the job gets done right. The position comes with perks and pressures. And while many may yearn to have the word "chief" in their title, not everybody is cut out for such a challenge.

Only "a select few" have the makings of a Chief Information Officer, says Peter High, president of Metis Strategy and author of "World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs".

"The average person who joins an IT department certainly does not have the makeup to be a CIO, just as the average person in finance does not have the makeup to be a CFO," he says.

Here's what it takes to earn the much-vaunted acronym of 'CIO' on your business card:

Business acumen. So you know how to put out fires and you have every technical certification known in the industry. But technical know-how is simply a base requirement for the position of CIO. Instead, High says, "What really separates the leaders from the rest of the pack is some significant business acumen."

While an MBA can certainly help broaden your expertise, High says today's business leaders are looking for CIOs that "have spent a little bit of time in a business environment, for example, by working as a consultant." This real-world experience lends IT professionals a greater understanding of how technology affects a company's bottom line, as well as a greater appreciation for a wide variety of everyday business challenges.

Flexible tech skills. So you've read all the right trade journals and have enrolled in the hottest high-tech programs. That's no guarantee, however, that you're ripe for the role of CIO. For starters, High warns, "There's no one technical skill that's necessary to become a CIO. Besides, if I were to attempt to define it today, in two or three years, it would probably no longer be relevant."

[ Do you really want to be a CIO? Or do you just want a bigger paycheck? Learn who is making the most money and why by reading 2012 IT Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights. ]

Rather, because most IT shops are "dynamic" environments, High says IT professionals "need to be flexible in their thinking" and able to act fast and on their feet.

Relationship-building prowess. Strong project management skills are critical to running a successful IT shop. But if you're hoping to climb that corporate ladder, it's important to know how to build relationships up, down, and sideways. In fact, according to a recent poll from SearchCIO, conducted of 875 senior and mid-level IT executives, CIOs who earn the highest salaries make building relationships with top executives more of a priority than managing IT projects.

"Being a CIO requires an ability to develop relationships in all directions--with your boss, outward with one's peers, with other C-level executives, heads of business units and relationships downwards as well," says High.

Personality fit. If you've got a penchant for hiding out in your corner cubicle, chances are, you're not exactly CIO material. Don't feel bad. "The traditional IT person who is deeply involved in technology is oftentimes a rather introverted person," says High. "It does require a bit of an extrovert to be able to pull off the job of CIO and to build the right relationships."

Communication. Being multilingual is hugely important for a career as a CIO. But forget about Berlitz. Being able to bridge "the gulf between IT and the rest of the organization" hinges on a CIO's ability to translate high-tech concepts into digestible business principles that can be understood by HR managers, warehouse workers, and techies alike. "It's the CIO who has a real an appreciation for the need to build those bridges across the chasm," says High. "Unfortunately, that's a rather rare individual."

A taste of different departments. You have the tech skills and you've cobbled together the business acumen. The final step is getting a taste of an organization's disparate departments, from human resources to finance. "The CIO in an IT department is kind of the glue or the central nervous system across the organization," explains High. "Almost all departments are brought to life by technology so a CIO needs to have expertise in all of those different areas."

Nominate your company for the 2012 InformationWeek 500--our 24th annual ranking of the nation's very best business technology innovators. Deadline is April 27. Organizations with $250 million or more in revenue may apply for the 2012 InformationWeek 500 now.

About the Author(s)

Cindy Waxer


Cindy Waxer is a Toronto-based freelance writer and content strategist who covers small business, technology, finance, and careers for publications including Technology Review, The Economist, TIME, Fortune Small Business, and CNNMoney.com.

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