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5 Skills CEOs Prize In CIOs

You want to be a CIO? The road to the top isn't about what you want. It's about fulfilling the expectations of your boss and peers.

I get this question all the time: What should I focus on if I want to be a CIO someday? The answer is complicated and doesn't always please the person who asked.

You must understand technology, of course, but most of what it takes to become an effective CIO has nothing to do with technology. The better question to ask is: Which skills do most CEOs want their CIOs to have?

So let's discuss what your boss will expect of you. Here's where it gets complicated. Regardless of whether the CIO reports to the CEO, has a dotted line to the CEO, or is married to and has children with the CEO, the CEO is your ultimate boss. And the CEO very much cares about the folks who run other mission-focused business units: your peers. To make matters more complex, those peers are also your customers. Thus, the first of the expectations of a CIO:

1. Customer management
A great CEO will want you to impact the business positively, through new products, re-engineering, automation, etc. But the CEO doesn't want you causing problems with people who rely on you. Call them your peers or your customers, your boss still doesn't want problems.

It's not about being a yes man or woman. Nor is it about being a pit bull -- those kinds of conflicts land right in the CEO's lap. It's about being able to have difficult conversations when IT screws up, and admitting to those screw-ups. Or being able to point out, constructively, when line departments are causing problems, like when they change requirements 12 times during the course of a project.

You need to resolve those kinds of problems without most of them rising up to Mom or Dad, because if your CEO is spending most of his or her time brokering your little conflicts, expect your tenure to be short.

Required development: diplomacy and emotional intelligence. Pompous jerks need not apply.

2. Staff management
A great CEO will want you to develop a team that takes pride in its work, of course, not only because it's good for the company long term, but also because it keeps HR grievances and costly turnover low and productivity-friendly morale high.

[Don't forget, you also need a strategy. Read Digital Business Strategy: 8 Gut-Check Questions.]

The challenge is most enterprises (also known as bureaucracies) have rules that seem crazy to employees, yet the CEO will expect you to develop a sane team without the aforementioned problem. It's possible to build such a team, but it requires an intense focus on mission, an appreciation for process with a focus on outcomes, and a humane approach to managing people that still emphasizes accountability. You also need to hold yourself to the same standards you hold your employees. And you need to manage your own stress levels so that you can perform at your best.

Required development: emotional intelligence, HR management, organizational development, candor, courage, and common sense. Dilbert bosses need not apply.

3. Vendor management
Your boss wants the company's technology vendors to be invisible, but your boss also wants the results that a specialized vendor can provide. When a $2 million tech project fails "because of the vendor," your boss won't be looking at the vendor. He or she will be looking at you. It's your vendor to manage; you must have the skills to do so.

Many of the skills that apply to customer and staff management apply here as well. While there's a time and a place to pull the plug on a vendor contract -- and I have done so -- there must be a lot of action in between. Most projects and contracts that are going off the rails can be righted with a little candor and TLC, recognizing that everybody wants the project to succeed. Tough guy tactics and lawyering up usually benefit the lawyers only.

Being pals with vendors: bad idea. Such relationships can lock you into a place that's bad for your company and hamper your negotiation leverage. Ducking

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and covering from vendors: bad idea, too, as you'll miss opportunities. Your boss expects you to find the sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

Required development: See customer management, plus negotiation skills. Vendor-phobes need not apply.

4. Financial management
IT is expensive. The CEO, CFO, and your business unit peers all know it, and they want someone at the helm who's financially literate, even savvy. You must avoid looking like a finance newb.

Some tips: Don't factor in soft cost savings such as reduced labor into your ROI estimates unless you plan to lay someone off. Understand the time value of money. Don't save $20,000 and create $20 million of risk or liability. Know the difference between a credit and a debit, and how accrual is different from cash. Be willing to say no to your staff when it's not clear how a proposed expense will serve the business.

Calculate operations versus capital expenses in the time frame that your finance office uses, and use their cost of capital for present value calculations. Realize that cash flow matters. Understand how the "fully burdened" cost of an employee at your organization compares to using contractors instead, including healthcare and other benefits. Vigorously and continuously cut expenses so that you can use savings to fund new initiatives instead of showing up to the budget office for each project with hat in hand.

Required development: Accounting, budgeting, and financial management skills. Those who can't balance a checkbook need not apply.

5. Internal reporting
I'll say it again: IT is a huge investment. You'd better tell the boss and your business unit peers what you've done for them lately or expect to join the ranks of "cost center" in their minds.

Report your accomplishments. To build credibility, be honest about your organization's challenges and screw-ups and how your team responded to them. Even if you're reporting on what FedEx CIO Rob Carter calls "the ugly picture," such honest assessments will help business partners decide whether additional investments are needed.

Celebrate successes, but include your partners in the celebrations. Keep track of how, exactly, your IT organization compares financially to other organizations in your industry. Either wow your boss and peers with how much less you're spending, or demonstrate that you're spending a bit more to get a higher level of service.

Absent thorough internal business reporting, your boss and peers will wonder what the heck you're doing all day with all that cool tech.

Required development: See financial management, plus writing, communications, and marketing. Liars need not apply.

Note that technology expertise isn't explicitly in any of these expectations of the CIO. It is, of course, buried in many of them: You can't call BS on vendors or your technical staff without being technically savvy yourself. You can't evaluate whether a customer request is reasonable without being technically savvy. And you can't assess a technology's risk without understanding it.

There is one job in IT that, if you do it right, does offer an opportunity to practice many of these skills, and I think it's the best possible preparation for the CIO role. I'll discuss it during my Interop "So You Want To Be A CIO" session on April 2 at Interop in Las Vegas. Meantime, see if you can guess what it is in the Comments field below. We'll send a small prize to the first person who guesses right.

Engage with Oracle president Mark Hurd, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, General Motors CIO Randy Mott, Box founder Aaron Levie, UPMC CIO Dan Drawbaugh, GE Power CIO Jim Fowler, and other leaders of the Digital Business movement at the InformationWeek Conference and Elite 100 Awards Ceremony, to be held in conjunction with Interop in Las Vegas, March 31 to April 1, 2014. See the full agenda here.

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 ... View Full Bio

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