Grooming Future CIOs – CIOs get business savvy

Chief information officers are becoming trusted business advisors and new educational programs are taking this role seriously

CIOs can no longer hide out in the IT shop, keeping a low profile. As business, compliance and governance requirements evolve, a CIO needs to be a great communicator, understand the politics of the boardroom and anticipate organizational challenges – and that’s a level of sophistication they won’t get if they remain cloistered.

CIOs are now considered part of the executive management team, essential to developing business strategy. Being a techie isn’t enough anymore. Business, marketing and networking skills are essential to the new leadership role required of a CIO.

“It’s mandatory, it’s just part of their job,” said Barry Clavir, executive director of the CIO Summit and founder of Ryerson’s IT Leadership Development Program. “Because of the amount of scrutiny they’re under, there’s a whole new level of skills that their job now requires – there’s really nowhere to hide.”

CIOs are responsible for the stewardship of information, he said, so they need a strong understanding of what’s going on with senior management and within the organization itself. Being responsive isn’t enough; CIOs should be able to anticipate what’s required. “And that requires a set of skills they don’t normally teach in school,” said Clavir.

Historically most CIOs have come up through the technology ranks, but that’s shifting as more CIOs have a business or finance background, along with some technical skills. Aspiring CIOs with a bachelor of science may find themselves at a loss, said Clavir, since nothing in their experience has prepared them for this type of role.

Andrew Dillane, CIO of CNC Global, a company that sources IT professionals, is an accounting major, with a minor in business computer systems – and this gives him an edge in today’s world. “I was actually going to be a CA, but I’d always been an IT guru since the time I was 10 years old,” he said. “I’m the Frankenstein version of what they’re formally working on today.”

Until recently there wasn’t a direct path to IT management, and CIOs developed their business skills on the side or through osmosis.

Today, programs like the one at Ryerson are being developed to help merge the IT role with business management skills.

As Dillane worked his way up the ranks to the role of CIO, he always approached IT from a client-solution focus. “I brought that to the role as opposed to that being demanded of me, but that’s really in sync with what’s happening out there,” he said. “It’s more important that CIOs are able to conceptually understand new technologies [in order] to be able to apply them to the business.”

A trusted partner
The CIO is becoming a trusted partner in the executive ranks in terms of helping to develop the strategy of the organization – since no one else is in a better position to dramatically change the way a business operates.

“You’re ultimately responsible for the performance of the organization whether it’s compliance or simply improving productivity or delivering solutions to clients,” he said. “The CIO isn’t shielded by anything and that’s where trust comes in and having business experience.”

At a basic level, CIOs need to understand business concepts, such as how to read financials, how to get through a budgeting cycle and how to manage people, said James McKeen, professor of MIS and director of The Monieson Centre at Queen’s School of Business. He also runs the CIO Brief, a meeting of CIOs that takes place four times a year.

CIOs also need knowledge of their particular organization, as well as knowledge of their particular industry. “You’re the trusted internal consultant [and] they value your contribution,” said McKeen. They don’t invite you to the table because they have to; they invite you because they wouldn’t consider taking the first step without you.

No longer is the role of CIO about pushing through technology projects and then being excused from the room. Instead of taking orders and doing as they’re told, CIOs are now having discussions with senior management about strategy – and in some cases this means saying no.

“What they’re really asking you for is a vision,” said McKeen. Sometimes that vision is cost focused, but more frequently that vision is about top-line revenue growth. “The successful CIOs are those who can articulate a vision with the other executives for the role of technology in driving the company forward.”

Continue to Part Two, Networking key to success.

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