Are you an aspiring CIO? Listen to what these leading CIOs say it will take for you to reach that coveted position.

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

November 20, 2012

5 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)

So you aspire to become a CIO, or at least move well up the chain of command. It's a complex job that requires a range of technical and business skills and experience. Just understanding the nuances of "the business" isn't enough -- it's long past time for CIOs to move beyond the "alignment" rhetoric and get on with creating customer-focused business opportunities powered by technology.

I recently participated in a panel session at Interop Mumbai in which four leading Indian CIOs discussed the attributes they're looking for in a successor. In preparation for that session, I talked with four CIOs in the U.S. about the same subject. Here's what they say they're looking for in their top people.

Multidimensional leaders. "They may be brilliant technologists, but without the business engagement and leadership skills, they will not make it to the higher level," says Dave Bent, CIO of United Stationers, who advises would-be CIOs to gain experience in a variety of business and IT roles.

Jerry Johnson, CIO of Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, a research lab under the auspices of the Department of Energy, puts the emphasis on breadth of IT experience: software development, infrastructure, operations, architecture, project management. "Consequently, I encourage -- but don't force -- lateral movement within the organization," he says.

[ The role of the CIO is changing. These innovations can help you keep pace. See 5 Innovative Ideas For Enterprise CIOs. ]

Customer-focused product and brand champions. By "customer," we're not talking about the company's IT users. We're talking about the people who buy your company's products. Do you meet and talk with them on a regular basis? Do you know them?

Customer skills are particularly important for CIOs at technology companies, where the CIO often doubles as a dog-food-eating product spokesman. But a customer orientation is critical for all CIOs, says Kent Kushar, CIO of E. & J. Gallo Winery, who's as comfortable at wine-tasting events discussing vintages and palate taste zones (I've seen him in action) as he is at board meetings explaining analytics and supply chain management.

The best CIOs consider themselves retailers and bankers and manufacturers first, technologists second. (But don't underestimate the value of being a first-class, well-rounded technologist.)

Players. The best CIOs get to know, on both a professional and personal level, the senior line execs responsible for delivering their companies' core business results. "They ask them how things really work, how decisions get made," says InformationWeek's Secret CIO, who works for a $1 billion-plus company. "They figure out the results those execs are accountable for and, most important, how the execs' performance is measured."

Bent wants CIO candidates to have had exposure at the board level. "The CIO has to have the same broad leadership characteristics as any other C-level position -- listening, communicating, as well as leading," he says. Rajesh Uppal, CIO of Indian carmaker Maruti Suzuki, says tomorrow's IT leaders must "empathize with and understand their users and then come back and offer some value."

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Battle-tested warriors. CIO candidates must show demonstrable wins on projects, IT and otherwise. "The best indicator of success is success," Kushar says. Our Secret CIO relates the time he asked one of his direct reports to improve customer satisfaction with the company's phone system. "She established call-handling benchmarks. She interviewed VPs and LOB managers to understand how they measured customer satisfaction. She learned about call centers. She talked with customers. She put a technology project in place as well, and when process changes were completed, she demonstrated, using the same metrics, that satisfaction levels had increased significantly."

Self-starters and go-getters. Arun Gupta, CIO of Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla, is looking to add 35 IT specialists to the 17 people now in the company's core IT group, among them a chief information security officer and SAP lead. "Are they going to put their neck on the block, irrespective of whether I agree or disagree?" Gupta says.

V. Subramaniam, Asia-Pacific CIO of Otis Elevator, says he wants people with "fire in the belly and fire in the eyes." He also emphasizes "the discipline of the execution. They have to make things happen, without excuses."

For the 16th consecutive year, InformationWeek is conducting its U.S. IT Salary Survey. To date, more than 200,000 IT professionals have participated in this survey. Take our InformationWeek 2013 U.S. IT Salary Survey now, and be eligible to win some great prizes. Survey ends Jan. 18.

About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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