How to get a CIO's or IT manager's job

A new breed of leaders are using a modern skillset to land jobs as CIOs and IT managers

As a profession, IT is still in its adolescence. And like all teenagers it's still trying to find its place in the world. The problem is that IT is typically one of the largest cost centres in your business and, often, a poor reputation for delivering bang for buck. However, that's changing with a new breed of IT leader emerging.

A recent book by Graham Waller of Gartner Executive Programs, George Hallenbeck of Korn/Ferry and Karen Rubenstrunk (formerly of Korn/Ferry's CIO practice) examined successful CIOs to find out what sorts of skills they brought to the board room table. In a sign that IT is moving from a technical to management discipline, none of the key skills they reported from their study were technical. Instead, the key skills were focussed on people management, stakeholder engagement and leading the entire working environment that surrounds them in their vision.

Linda Price, Group Vice President - Executive Program for Gartner Asia Pacific says that the "focus of IT these days is about managing people and not systems". In a recent executive forum held with top tier CIOs from large mining companies Price noted that it was interesting that all of the CIOs were formerly finance managers rather than technician highlighting that managing IT is about business outcomes and not technical delivery

An interesting observation of that forum was that finance, as a discipline, is hundreds of years old. "The technical part of a CFO's role matured many years ago and many CFO's are, legitimately, the CEO's right hand from a business perspective. IT is only 30 years old and a very young role in corporate history" Price added. A recent Gartner study also found that the most successful CIOs spent about two days per week focussed specifically on "the CEO, the board and C-suite executives rather than looking inwardly to the IT organisation" said Price.

Forrester Research sees the 21st century CIO as adopting a new mode of operation over predecessors. A recent report titled "BT 2020: IT’s Future In The Empowered Era" noted that the traditional relationship between IT and the business has been reactive with IT often being considered the "department of 'No'". Consequently, the business looks to other solutions and bypasses the internal IT department further compounding the disconnect between IT and the business. That will lead to a shift from IT provisioning services out to business units to a new model where the IT fiction will be embedded into business units. A central IT function will likely still prevail but it will provide "guardrails" rather than "prescriptions" for technology.

Tim Dillon, AVP Asia Pacific End User & Mobility Research with IDC sees that the modern CIO takes a "path is no longer a straight line but one that crosses multiple streams in the business". He sees the consumerisation of IT as leading to an executive suite where almost everyone has some degree of IT knowledge and expertise. The proliferation of mobile devices, cloud services and social media has put IT into the hands of everyone, leading to business units creating their own IT solutions. Often, these sneak under the radar as costs are low enough to not garner any balance sheet attention. He continues adding that CIOs are "at risk of being marginalised if all they are is managers. They become utility services for the business and therefore replaceable by a third party".

In contrast with the views of Gartner, Dillon believes that IT is growth industry where the main issue is "the rapidity in which the environment can shift. There have been major transitions points from the mainframe to desktops to the Internet to cloud. They've all been reasonably significant transitions. But it is by nature an incredibly changing and disruptive industry. Even with a mature, well governed function it doesn't mean that you won't have an emergent technology tomorrow that won't change the model".

So, what's it take to climb the ladder and become a CIO?

  1. Work on delivering business outcomes rather than technical solutions.
  2. Be prepared to leave the IT department and broaden your business understanding by working at the coalface.
  3. Develop your people skills. You'll never be a leader if you can't get people to follow.
  4. Find ways to add value to the business rather than just keep things running as they always have.
  5. Move beyond a service provision model for IT and become a strategic partner for the business.
This was first published in April 2011

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