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Every CIO needs these 4 skills

It's about strategy, not just tech

By Kristin Burnham

  • The CIO role has evolved from top technologist to strategic leader
  • Companies want IT leaders who can communicate clearly and focus on customers
  • Other key skills include the ability to innovate and explain the impact of innovation to the board

Just five years ago, IT know‑how and implementation skills topped a Forbes magazine study as the most important skills chief information officers needed to be successful. Things change.

“Operational excellence, managing technical debt, and project execution are all still important,” says Martha Heller, CEO of Heller Search Associates. But these days, CIOs hire people to take care of that technical and operations work, she says. Those in the top job tend to focus on bigger priorities.

The CIO role has changed substantially in the past few years. While the job still requires strong tech chops, strategic vision and change management are now the most in‑demand CIO skills.

“Every business is becoming a digital business, with competitors you never saw before and opportunities that were not present before,” Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, said in the 2018 version of the Forbes CIO Study. “If CIOs shirk from their new responsibilities and these new challenges, they’ll stay the VPs of infrastructure.”

Here’s a look at key skills that align with new priorities. 



Social Intelligence

In a 2017 Deloitte survey of 1,200 global CIOs, the biggest gaps between existing and desired CIO skills were the ability to influence internal stakeholders, bring in top talent, and articulate technology vision and leadership.

The study grouped these skills gaps under an umbrella term called “social intelligence.” According to Deloitte, today’s CIOs require social intelligence skills “to influence key business stakeholders, attract and motivate talent, and drive technology vision and leadership.”

Tighter focus on the customer

CIOs traditionally relied on their colleagues in sales, marketing, or product for knowledge of their customers while they worked to create technology solutions to provide needed functionality. That doesn’t cut it today. CIOs must take a more active role in understanding customer experiences and needs.

With digital technologies enabling much more immediate connections to the customer, Heller says, “CIOs need to better understand what the customer wants and be in direct contact with them, much more so than they used to be.”

This means joining sales calls, spending more time with the sales and marketing teams, and assigning IT staffers to identify opportunities to better connect with customers.

Heller also advises CIOs to tackle more advanced approaches. One tactic is to head up an “ideation lab,” a small group tasked with brainstorming new technology solutions that can benefit customers. CIOs can then bring customers into the process for their input on proofs of concept.

Influence without authority

CIOs are no longer solely responsible for just a company’s technology portfolio and implementation. Those are now shared responsibilities and assets among product managers and cross‑functional teams.

While CIOs are still accountable for moving innovative ideas into production and delivering solutions that scale, they tend to have less direct authority in these areas. As a result they need to wield influence in other ways.

If relations between marketing and IT are strained, for example, it’s the CIO’s job to build a relationship with the CMO, create a cross‑functional team, identify the capability you want them to improve, and give them a budget. “Think about products, not projects,” Heller says. “That’s how companies innovate.”



Board-level business knowledge

Security is on every board agenda these days, given the explosion of connectivity and data and the vulnerabilities they have created in recent years. CIOs (and CISOs) can help board members understand security needs and strategy.

“It’s not new for CIOs to focus on information security—the new skill is to be able to talk to the board about it in the language that they understand, which is business and finance,” Heller says.

This means that CIOs need a board‑level grasp of finance. This includes understanding how shareholders get paid and how money flows in and out of the company, along with KPIs such as sales targets, new customer acquisition, and net promoter scores.

Vision and innovation

Successful CIOs partner with their fellow leaders to develop a holistic view of the business. They arm themselves with examples and case studies, and absorb new best practices in management.

This perspective on vision and innovation—along with building strong relationships internally and with customers—is ultimately what allows CIOs to evolve from senior technologists to strategic leaders. 

Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering business technology, IT leadership, and online privacy and security.

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