How To Make The Leap From IT Pro To CIO

Executive recruiter Kathy Harris gives us an in-depth look at how to rise to the top levels of IT.
8 IT Projects To Prioritize When Budget's Tight
8 IT Projects To Prioritize When Budget's Tight
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If you're looking to advance your career in the direction of the CIO's seat, the first thing you need to do is learn what it really means to be an IT leader. For starters, it could mean loving technology a little less. That's the advice of Kathy Harris, executive recruiter and managing director of Harris Allied.

"Sometimes a technologist wants to embrace a new technology because they love it," said Harris in an interview with InformationWeek. "But the mindset of senior managers is that technology is a tool to further the business. It is not an end unto itself. Making that shift is the first step in the process."

Once you've made that mindset change, Harris said, the ability to develop teams is something businesses look for in potential IT leaders. "The person tapped [for] more senior roles understands the big picture," said Harris.

"If you are in a leadership role, you are only as good as the people around you. As a leader, you have to engage with your team and continue to cross-train and develop the team. Team building is really critical. Most people don't think in terms of the team. They think the job to be done is the work. But the real work is developing the team."

Of course, you can help develop all of the teams you want, but you're still going to need the qualifications for the next step. Long before you're ready to start job hunting, Harris recommended that you monitor job descriptions of roles you are hoping to have one day. See how many of the qualifications mentioned in those ads are ones you currently have.

If you're lacking in any areas, look for ways to help your current manager with tasks that will help you gain the necessary experience. For example, if you've never handled a budget, look for ways to assist your manager with budgeting.

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So, now you're all ready to make the big leap. What are the biggest surprises you'll face in trying to land your first role in senior IT leadership?

"You'd be surprised by how many senior leadership jobs are filled by networking," Harris said, "For many IT pros, that doesn't come naturally. Think about how to become comfortable with it. When we help fill senior-level positions, like CIO, the person is often referred" to the agency by someone in his or her network.

The higher up the ranks you want to climb, the more prepared you need to be for a rigorous interview process, warned Harris. "It is going to be longer. It is more exhausting. These things take on a life of their own and go on for months," she said. "You'll be meeting with people across the company. They look for things like executive presence. Do they see this person as being able to represent the company in panels? Can they speak publicly and represent the company?"

How do you impress the people who interview you for a senior IT role? According to Harris, you need to emphasize these four things:

  • What you've made
  • What you've built
  • What you've saved
  • What you've achieved

"In other words," she said, "what is the business advantage that you've brought to your company?"

Once you've gone through the marathon interview process and talked to every stakeholder -- and told every one of them what you've made, built, and saved -- how do you know whether the job is right for you? "The most important thing is to understand the expectations of the role," said Harris. "What does the company expect? What are they expecting in 30, 60, 90 days? Get the roadmap down."

Not every CIO job is a fit for everyone, she said. Some leaders are better caretakers, better at fixing problems, or at managing growth. You have to match your abilities to the type of role that is offered. Don't jump at the first offer you get.

Above and beyond all else, Harris cited the one trait she thinks people most like to see in executives: Optimism. It might be the one thing that helps you stand out from the pack as you look to advance your career.