At Interop New York, I'll reveal some secrets about getting to -- and staying in -- the CIO's chair.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

August 27, 2014

7 Min Read

IT workers: If someone asked you, "Do you want to be CIO?" your answer, most likely, would be "yes." But, apart from desiring the greater salary and influence, are you willing to fulfill the job requirement of being the type of CIO that the CEO will value? And are you willing to switch gears from being a technologist, become a hybrid business-technologist, and do what it takes to be an effective CIO in the digital age? At my quickly approaching Interop New York session, I'll start exploring those questions. Here's a preview.

It's not enough to be named CIO. You actually have to be able to stay in your seat for some length of time in order to effect positive change to your IT organization and ultimately to the larger organization.

There's good news, and bad news. The good news: The Society for Information Management's most recent data shows high-level IT execs spent an average of 5.2 years, up from 3.6 years in 2006, in that role. And, the 2014 InformationWeek US IT Salary Survey showed that the median of an IT exec's tenure was 7 years. But not all is rosy: The InformationWeek research also showed that just 51% of IT executives rated their positions as very secure, with only 25% "very satisfied" with all aspects of their jobs.

My take on the upward trend: Our profession has learned, the hard way, the factors that make an IT leader sustainable. These also happen to be the factors that help future CIOs climb their way into the big chair.

[And when you become a CIO, you will have to deal with the outsourcing question. Read 4 Outsourcing Mistakes Companies Still Make.]

Factor #1: Understand business. A would-be CIO must learn the language of business. If you're not understood, expect your tenure to be brutish and short as a new CIO. Or, expect not to be selected for the big seat in the first place.

Cut acronyms out of your language when you're addressing execs. In the same way that you've spent time learning everything about the business of IT, learn everything about the business of business. Do you need an MBA? It helps, but it's not necessary. What is a must is that you must value business value over technology. Your CEO will know if you don't.

Prospective CIO to-do: Spend an equal amount of time reading business publications as you do technology publications. The Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal are a good start. If you're not terribly up to speed on your core business already (baseball, publishing, wine making, government, banking, whatever), spend some time coming up to speed. Consider a certificate class in the field that has nothing to do with IT.

Factor #2. Get sideways. We mostly think that we must manage "up," because we want to keep the boss happy. And that's true. We also think that we must manage "down" because we are responsible for a staff. That's also true. More on that in a moment.

But oftentimes, IT pros forget that they must manage "sideways," that is, there's a certain amount of communication and relationship-building with your peers inside the organization, but also outside of the organization. A CIO who wants to be more of digital business enabler than an infrastructure manager needs to forge deep relationships inside the organization, because digital business is all about business. And nobody's going to hand off an important business initiative to someone he or she doesn't trust.

A CIO who wants to establish her own balance between leading edge and bleeding edge innovation, must, of course, deeply understand staff capabilities, internal business needs, and what management will tolerate. But, she'll also forge relationships outside of the organization so that she gets a true sense of what others are doing, what technologies, techniques, and vendors are contributing to business success, and what the real skinny is on limitations and risks. In short, building an external network provides valuable market intelligence that allows a CIO to minimize risk and cost, and maximize results.

Prospective CIO to-do: Be the kind of IT middle manager who gets out of the office, out of the building. Get into the field and figure out how IT is harming the business, and how IT can help. Help where needed. Rinse and repeat. Your CIO will appreciate you taking on some of the load, trust me, and you'll be creating a rep at your business as a potential CIO successor. And, stop going to inane "networking" cocktail hours. Spend that time joining a mastermind group, volunteering, or doing something else that forges meaningful relationships outside of a networking meat market.

Factor #3: People first, not tech. If I have learned anything in my career, it is that IT is a people business first, not a technology business. You can have the most wonderful data center in the world, but give a monkey a hammer, and he'll make a shambles of it all.

If IT was a static, unchanging profession, I'd grant you that the opposite might be the case. But tech is never static. People code new tech, deploy new tech, break new tech, have security breaches in new tech, troubleshoot new tech.

If we want that new tech to serve the business rather than the other way around, we need the right people working with and making the right decisions about that tech. If we didn't understand that in the 80s or 90s, surely we understood it by the 2000s, when consumerization was starting to rear its head. BYOD was a great example, when it became apparent that too much control over employee devices could be as bad as too little control. In the new digital world, we will only be able to make those decisions and implement technologies with the right people: those who understand business, technology, customer service, marketing. Who's going to pick, lead, manage, inspire, act as a sounding board to, and double-check those people? Maybe it'll be the CMO at your organization. But my bet is in many cases it'll be the CIO. Maybe it'll be a new CDO who eventually absorbs IT, but I'd argue that in that case you had the wrong CIO to begin with.

Point being: The right CIO will steer the right people into IT, see that they stay, make sure that they have the right skill sets and adapt to changing technology, and will never tolerate sociopaths. The right CIO understands that folks with this alchemical blend of skills can get another job tomorrow. It's up to him to make sure this doesn't happen so that the business continues to have an edge over the competition.

Would-be CIO to-do: If you don't have any formal training in leadership, get some. I am a huge fan of the "Leadership Challenge," and draw many of my leadership techniques from training that I had decades ago. There is also a growing body of literature out there that documents how to manage employees who are more like volunteers than slaves, including Peter Shankman's "Nice Companies Finish First." You probably have good instincts, but leadership is complex, and more complex than programming any router. It's worth an investment of your time to get better at.

In its ninth year, Interop New York (Sept. 29 to Oct. 3) is the premier event for the Northeast IT market. Strongly represented vertical industries include financial services, government, and education. Join more than 5,000 attendees to learn about IT leadership, cloud, collaboration, infrastructure, mobility, risk management and security, and SDN, as well as explore 125 exhibitors' offerings. Register with Discount Code MPIWK to save $200 off Total Access & Conference Passes.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

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 resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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