So You Want To Be A CIO? 4 Tips

If you have C-suite aspirations, consider these four pieces of advice from the school of hard knocks.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

May 17, 2013

6 Min Read

LinkedIn: 10 Important Changesr

LinkedIn: 10 Important Changes

(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
LinkedIn: 10 Important Changes

I sat on a panel at Interop two weeks ago titled "So You Want To Be A CIO." It was a stimulating conversation with a highly engaged audience.

I hope some of the following tips that came out of that conversation and my many years of experience in IT are helpful in planning your own management career.

1. Grow Your Employees

The panel was asked about "promotability" -- that is, the most important characteristics up-and-coming IT pros need to get on the CIO track. The two most important ones, in my mind, are communication skills and emotional intelligence. You must be able to handle and communicate difficult situations with customers, for sure, but just as important, you must be able to grow your employees -- and communication skills and emotional intelligence are critical there.

I've observed that some people new to leadership roles feel like they need to abandon their common sense and use a cattle prod on employees instead of applying everything they've learned growing up through sports, scouting or any other positive team-based activity. There's this incredible transformation that turns otherwise decent people into small-island dictators. Leadership is about influence, not complete control.

[ For some big-league IT leadership advice, read SF Giants CIO: Quit Bellyaching, Start Leading. ]

I just finished an excellent book, Leaders Open Doors, in which author Bill Treasurer discusses two types of leaders: "spillers" and "fillers." A spiller approaches work from a negative angle: What keeps me up at night? What makes me afraid? A filler approaches work from a positive angle: What makes me want to come to work in the morning?

Bottom line, both from my experience and the author's: Fillers elicit deep loyalty from the people they lead. Spillers get deep resentment. Which set of employees do you think do better work? Note that I didn't say more work.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to take a genuine interest in the welfare of your employees. Late in the panel session I was asked how a former infrastructure and security guy such as myself made the leap to CIO. My answer: One of my biggest strengths, revealed by Tom Rath's StrengthsFinder personality assessment, is that I really, really like to help others succeed.

As a CIO or other IT leader, you're going to spend a lot of time on other people's careers. You must invest in people as well as tech. So my question to you is, do you like to see other people succeed? If you don't, you might want to consider another career goal.

Global CIO Global CIOs: A Site Just For You Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

2. Know Thy First Team

During the panel, we discussed the role of the CIO as a bridge between technology and the overall business, the role of the CIO in cutting through BS and reducing complexity. Sometimes the CIO needs to call BS on his or her own staff. Yes, you need to develop your people, but you also need to be candid with them, call them out when they're being obstructionist or they don't have the best interest of the business at heart.

Another book that has functioned as a beacon for me is Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The notion of the "first team" is the team that you owe the most allegiance to. And in the case of the successful CIO, the first team is the executive leadership team, not the IT team.

That's painful to hear and talk about, because a good CIO spends a lot of time growing his or her staff. But first things first: The business must prosper if IT is to prosper.

3. Play Politics

An audience member asked whether I spend more time with operations or politics and marketing, and I detected a note of disdain in his voice when he mentioned the latter.

My response: Politics and diplomacy are the alternatives to war, so don't underestimate their importance. Every CIO must acknowledge politics as necessary. And there's a world of difference between backstabbing politicos and diplomats interested in win-win outcomes.

Marketing and PR are just as important. Who do you want to tell your organization's story: IT or someone else? And how does any organization, commercial or internal, garner support for a product or service? Through marketing and PR.

While we're all aware of the negative aspects, my successful CIO mentors drilled into my head that you must communicate value (marketing) and tell your story (PR). How much time you'll need to spend on those things depends on the organization, but I guarantee you it won't be zero.

4. Encourage Skunk Works

Our panel discussion turned to innovation, and someone talked about IT folks having a low tolerance for risk. Agreed, to a point.

Do IT pros tend to have a low tolerance for risks they don't fully understand? I pointed out that IT takes risks all the time. Every time someone patches a server, updates firmware or otherwise messes with a working system, it's like surgery. You call on your expertise and take all the necessary precautions, but there's always an outside chance that things could go wrong. Nothing good happens without taking risks, and that's as true in technology as it is in business.

One risk IT folks don't take often enough is operating outside the chain of command, otherwise known as "ask for forgiveness, not permission." Huge innovations can come out of such skunk works because without the cold eye of upper management upon your people, they're more likely to say, what the heck, let's try something new and see what happens.

Nobody wants to fail at something while management's watching. Some of my staff's most notable accomplishments emerged from skunk works. FedEx calls this "little i," the innovations that happen from the bottom up (as opposed to "big I," which come from formal, structured labs and programs).

Create an atmosphere in which the leadership tolerates risk-taking, one where everything that people work on doesn't have to be listed on a project management docket.

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

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights