The goal of this report is not to describe how to be a good CEO. The journey to the top starts with being an outstanding CIO and gaining the credibility, experience and skills that are necessary to make it to the CEO level. In the next two sections we list the key areas and specific action items that CIOs should consider in the context of their career planning and, most importantly, in the context of delivering excellent results as CIOs. Indeed, even if you have no intentions to become a CEO, the following steps still apply and will help you become an exceptional CIO
The first step in successful CIO career progression is to build credibility through performance by providing results, demonstrating a business focus (supported by business knowledge), and showcasing the ability to be a business leader. This approach allowed the interviewees to overcome the negative IT stereotype and gain a seat at the executive table. Being accepted as one of the C-level executives led to more opportunities, as the CIO role was more likely to report directly to the CEO and as the CIO became more visible to the board. As shown by the interviewees’ career paths, this increased visibility, combined with credibility, tends to open many new doors for CIOs.
Secondly, it is important that CIOs orchestrate their career moves and take actions that will prepare them for the top executive role. These actions have to aim at developing the necessary skills, gaining relevant experience and being able to showcase readiness for the top role. At the same time, successful CIOs are able to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves along the way and which support career progression. These elements are described in further detail below.
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You have to be good at CIO basics but not only at the technical part – show how IT contributes to the business
Get engaged with the business to understand its drivers and its needs. IT is no longer a silo; its strategic importance in most businesses means that CIOs have to work closely with the business and be active partners rather than mangers of supporting services. This requires that CIOs be able to understand the business needs, discuss technology in the context of those needs, and communicate in a way that is clearly understandable to all stakeholders (avoiding technical jargon and specialized terms). As simply put by one of the interviewed executives, “make sure your audience gets it”. This means you need to know your audience and adjust your communication accordingly. Another interviewee suggests:
“Never talk techy in front of business executives – you may, as the IT person or the CIO, think that you‟re wowing the audience… but that‟s not the case. When you do that in front of the business audience that just shows the business executives that you cannot engage the audience and you lose more credibility than you think you‟re earning.”
Being able to contribute to the business is important in the context of career progression but most importantly, it will help you “to establish yourself as an individual that can have impact, add value, and contribute into the performance of the company”. This requires taking risks and stepping out of the traditional support role. As one interviewee put it, “you can’t be a bottle neck, you can’t be solely production oriented – you have to be growth oriented”. Otherwise, you will be seen solely as an executor rather than as an equal partner in business discussion. Try to build your credibility with the CEO by understanding their objectives and helping them achieve their goals. Finally, you need to understand the profit drivers of your company or, more simply put, how your organization makes money. Once you understand the levers in the business, you will know where IT can have the biggest impact and how it can become an integral part of the business. Your best opportunities are with organizations where IT is regarded as much more than a utility – if that is not the case within your company, the focus on profit drivers will help you change that.
Gain the needed business experience – consider lateral moves into business units (full time or interim appointments) or get involved in special projects
While a certain degree of business acumen can be gained in IT roles, first-hand work experience on the business side is invaluable. Not only will it provide a way to considerably expand your knowledge base and skill set, but it will also enrich your track record, proving that you are ready to step up beyond your current role. Consider taking operational roles and positions within Finance, Sales, Logistics, Marketing or other areas essential to your business. Take responsibility for regional operations outside your home country or take on interim appointments where you can considerably expand your role. You should also consider getting involved in projects where you can assess your business skills and test them before moving to a full time business position; these can include M&A activities, transformational projects and any unique initiatives that impact the business. There is no single path in getting business experience but whatever the means, the goal remains the same – to expand your knowledge and your know-how beyond IT. Fill up your toolbox with many different tools – “you don’t know when it’s going to help you but it will help you”. As pointed out by one of the interviewees, some CIOs “have a tendency to get sucked into the prevailing winds”. With the quick pace of change in today’s IT world it is easy to focus on your current responsibilities and miss opportunities that arise elsewhere. Try to actively look for those opportunities and be open-minded about those that are suggested or offered to you in your organization. When exploring various opportunities think of them in terms of the long-term impact they might have on your career. When taking on new responsibilities, make sure you realize all the benefits that your new challenges offer. Be an agile learner – seek feedback and learn both from your successes and your mistakes. In today’s fast changing world you cannot afford to stand still. An agile approach to learning will allow you to acquire new skills and knowledge which you will be able to use to creatively solve problems and think outside of the (IT) box.
Improve your knowledge through executive education, IT leadership programs or MBA-like programs
Expanding business acumen does not have to be done only through practical experience. Education and training programs have two main advantages: they can fill gaps in your business knowledge and they also showcase your willingness to learn and continuously develop your expertise. While education cannot be a substitute for work experience, it can complement it and it can be very helpful in gaining basic understanding of the business in preparation for hands-on experience. One interviewee recognized the importance of an executive business program, saying that it grounded them “in finance, economics, organizational development and little bit of marketing”, providing “a better picture of all the different disciplines that ultimately are going to roll out to you”.
Build a network by participating in a wide range of corporate activities – become part of committees, planning groups etc.
Being involved in corporate activities is another way to gain valuable experience and larger visibility within the business. In addition, it will help you build a network that can both support you in your current role and propel you to the next one. Become what one of the interviewees called “a connector” – build relationships with various parts of the business and connect various stakeholders. You will become a trusted contact and will be included in more strategic discussions. When getting involved in corporate activities, be sure to actively contribute to the discussion. Become a partner who participates in defining technology needs rather than a manager who delivers it. Be an advocate for your team and use corporate activities to bridge the gap that might exist between the business and your team. Build networks inside and outside your organization – with colleagues and even with competitors. It is not uncommon for CIOs in certain industries to meet and discuss technologies, vendors etc. In addition, get involved outside of work – volunteer and join groups or associations where you can meet people who will become a valuable part of your network. If you can, take leadership roles in these groups. Those groups don’t have to be related to your professional area of expertise – expanding your network beyond your industry will provide you with access to a much broader knowledge and experience base from which you can draw as needed. Whatever the way you choose to build your network, be sure to take personal time to build peer relationships. Become visible to other executives and demonstrate partnership Think about what you bring to the table and how you can contribute to the overall business value. Don’t be afraid to say no, but be ready to explain and support your views so that other executives will understand and trust your judgment. Become a partner in business discussions, proactively suggesting ways in which technology can support all areas of the business. Share your team’s success stories with other executives and help them better understand how IT impacts the entire company. The more you are able to take the mystery out of IT, the more your peers will seek your advice and opinion. You have to be approachable to initiate that contact and then be able to have a meaningful conversation about how IT can impact your peers and how it can make the Line of Business executives successful
1.2 Improving your Personal Skills
Do periodical self-assessment and reflection (you don’t know what you don’t know)
The first step in the process of improving personal skills is to identify the gaps. Catalogue the skills of successful leaders you know (in the positions you aspire to hold) and compare them to your own skills. Take personality tests, perhaps from professional advisors. Where you see a considerable gap, develop an action plan to improve those skills (find a mentor or a coach who can help you with that process). Also, think about the role that will be most suitable to your skills and preferences – CEO is not the only role into which you can progress.
Assess and work to improve your emotional intelligence
Be ready to step out of your comfort zone and practice skills that you require to be a successful leader. Work on your public speaking skills, presentation and communication skills, and remember to keep the lines of communication open. Become a sales person for your organization, communicating your goals and achievements. Don’t shy away from dealing with situations where you are not at ease. Reach out to your mentors to get help on how best to approach difficult problems and improve your emotional intelligence. Awareness followed by development and practice will bring results, which will elevate your skills to a CEO-ready level.
Build a reputation for developing staff and building effective teams
Your success as a business-focused CIO will be largely dependent on your ability to motivate your team and have them accept your vision for the IT organization. You are likely to be close to your organization’s strategy and understand the reasons behind certain initiatives or projects. Help your team understand those reasons and inspire them to actively contribute to the corporate vision. Recognize your team and celebrate their successes – both within the IT organization and with your peers. On the other hand, remember to pick your battles and keep in mind that not all of your team members will be equally motivated and engaged. Understand what drives your team members and adjust your management style accordingly. As you work on your own development, don’t forget about those who make your plans a reality. Your own team might also benefit from the skills we discuss in this work. One of the interviewees talked about having certification programs supporting technical training as well as a range of soft skills courses – communication, presentation skills, project management etc. Think about what skills can help your team become more business focused and support you in delivering IT value in the business context.
1.3 Exhibiting Business Leadership
Be a change leader in your organization
Be actively engaged in identifying and introducing change in your organization. You can lead or participate in change projects but you can also create value through continuous improvement. Some solutions are very simple yet powerful and valuable to your business partners. As one participant suggested, “find something that’s annoying, irritating, that’s simple to solve and then solve it”. The solution itself doesn’t have to be complex; the important thing is how well it solves an organizational problem. Remember that small incremental changes might go unnoticed, even when they bring significant benefits to the organization. Make sure that the stakeholders are aware of how you solved the problem – talk about your team’s achievements and your own accomplishments to not only demonstrate how you bring value to the organization but also to encourage others to come to you with their problems. If you are seen as an effective change leader, you will be consulted, engaged and involved more frequently.
Recognize the importance of IT governance
If you are not in an organization with good IT maturity and governance, change it. Try “to put a very transparent and easy to use governance model in place”. Without proper governance structures you will not get the organizational support that comes from well-defined processes and your visibility will be limited. Although you might feel that your ability to influence the IT governance structure is limited, don’t be discouraged. The example of our respondents show that you can educate your leadership as to the importance of having such structures and consequently increase the maturity of IT use in your organization. If your organization already has mature IT governance, be sure to take full advantage of the opportunities it provides. Use the internal processes to increase your visibility and build credibility within your organization. If despite your efforts you are not able to introduce governance structures, consider moving to an organization that recognizes the importance of IT management and where your efforts to advance and improve IT will be supported. Your efforts in creating a business-focused IT organization will be effective only as far as the support you get from your leadership.
2.Orchestrate your Career
All of the interviewees took actions that helped them shape their careers, even though career advancement wasn’t necessarily their main motivator. Specifically, they actively sought ways to gain more experience, they built relationships with peers and mentors, and (where they did seek to move into hirer positions), they made their aspirations known and approached them strategically.
2.1 Gain experience and increase visibility
To move into a higher position, you must demonstrate that you are ready to take on the associated responsibilities. If your track record revolves only around IT, you will find it difficult to convince others that you have what it takes. However, if you can show that you have dealt with a variety of business situations, you will become a stronger candidate for the COO or CEO role. Consider serving on voluntary boards. While the interviewees chose very different paths, they all took the opportunity to be exposed to additional responsibilities and experiences. Some of them become known for their willingness to take on the tasks for which no one else wanted the responsibility. Not only were they recognized for being engaged and dependable but they were also able to showcase their ability to solve problems. When career advancement opportunities came, no one questioned their skills in this area. Complement your hands-on experience with education – degrees (such as MBA), certificates and training courses will provide you with broader context and information about the areas you do not have a chance to experience first hand. As a CEO, you will be expected to have a broad knowledge and understanding of the business. Education will help you bridge the gap between your current skill set and what you will need to lead an organization. The experience, proven track record and education will help you get what one of the interviewees called a “business badge” – wide recognition for being business savvy. It will help you in your current role and might bring unanticipated positive benefits in your career progression.
2.2 Let your network help you
Build a network inside and outside your organization, and use it to gain additional support and propel your career. Build relationships with your peers and create your own brand image as a business partner who can be trusted and depended upon. This reputation will encourage people to consider you for a wider variety of roles and will increase the number of opportunities that will come your way. Make your aspirations known and don’t sit in your office waiting for others to come to you – be proactive in building relationships and make yourself visible. As you plan your career and set out on a path to increase your impact as a CIO, find someone who has travelled a similar path and made it into the leadership team. Find a mentor and take advantage of their knowledge and experience. You won’t have to solve every problem on your own and you will also have a chance to discuss your ideas with someone who understands where you are coming from and where you are going. It doesn’t matter if you participate in a formal mentoring program or create a strong personal bond with someone outside your organization. Based on the experience of the interviewees, there appears to be no correlation between the mentoring format and its effectiveness. It is the mutual trust and the relevance of the mentor’s experience that make these relationships highly valuable to the participants.
2.3 Think strategically about your career
Be selective about the opportunities you take advantage of, but also define your goals broadly and don’t let your career objectives actually limit your career opportunities. Don’t think in terms of positions as much as in terms of what the experience can add to your personal “toolbox”. Seek challenges and don’t shy away from high-profile projects, even if they present high levels of potential risks. All of the interviewees got involved in other areas but they all did it in different ways. Understand what way is best for you and pursue it. Even though you have to take control of your career, remember that you can’t map out every single step. One of the participants shared the following insight: “I think anybody who tries to really plan out their career in every minute step, will be disappointed when they get to the end of their career. You miss a lot of things that are just really fun”. Keep an open mind and focus more on where various opportunities can take you rather than on rigidly following a career plan you set for yourself. The range of professional possibilities for CIOs continues to grow and you will find many interesting opportunities come your way when you build your credibility as a business leader.
Theo Korn/Ferry Institute