6 Skills, Habits and Traits of Successful CIOs

Everybody wants to be the boss, but do you really have what it takes to be a CIO? We talked to the experts and peeked into this year's CIO Executive Council's Ones to Watch awards nominations to home in on what it takes to succeed as a CIO.

Most people say they like to be at the top of the heap of the IT management food chain, but with the CIO title comes great responsibility, accountability and pressure.

The world of technology changes at a blinding pace, which means a CIO has to regularly adopt new skills. Whether it's mastering cloud computing, big data or IT outsourcing, it seems like there is never a break from learning. And as other departments get involved in technology decisions, budgets are not always under the control of the IT department.

Habits and Skills of Successful CIOs

So what does it take to compete and be a successful CIO at a time when having a variety of skills is more important than ever before. To find out, we turned to our colleagues at the CIO Executive Council. Its Ones to Watch Awards program is designed to recognize future IT leaders. A panel of veteran CIO serves as the judges.

Candidates are nominated by their managers and judged on how well they have implemented and articulated major problems and solutions within their organizations in the last year. The results are great examples of the kind of skills it takes to succeed today in the upper echelon of any organization.

Using data from the Ones to Watch evaluation process as well as interviews with career strategist, Donald Burns and Arizona State University CIO Gordon Wishon, CIO.com has put together a list of traits and skills commonly associated with today's successful CIOs. If having a "chief" in your title is your long-term goal, then a mastery of the following skills and a strong desire are what's needed to get you there.

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1. IT Touches Everything

Regardless of your industry, chances are every department at your company relies on IT for something--phones, emails, computers, newsletters, content management systems and the list goes on.

"Every corner of every line of business has a need for some sort of IT support or service. That fact is a reflection of the value of what technology can do to improve performance, drive efficiency, save costs and ultimately to become more effective," says Wishon.

IT downtime can bring a company to its knees. Imagine a day where you can't send or receive email or you can't update a product or event web page with important new information. "If anything goes wrong with IT, you can't work. You might as well go home. If you're working from home and IT gets in your way, you might as well take the day off. For a business, limited IT is like limiting the oxygen supply - very quickly, people get scared, distracted and angry," says Burns.

2. CIOs Are Always Learning and Growing

To be successful at any level of IT you must always be learning. If you don't, you are left behind. This is even truer for senior management personnel.

"The top leadership expects the CIO to stay ahead of trends, and that type of info is not always available in a course or training program. In other words, you must make up your own course, look around you and be aware of emerging trends," says Burns.

"A CIO who isn't aware of what's going on around him won't be a CIO very long," says Wishon. He adds that people in the IT field are a part of the most actively changing and volatile field, outside of healthcare. A college degree is the beginning of the journey; companies need CIOs who can see over the horizon to recognize emerging technologies and how they can be applied to business objectives.

Ones to Watch Award Candidate

Reason for nomination: Shaped and developed a more agile, customer-focused and business-oriented IT team through talent management, skills analysis, selective hiring and deployment or mentoring.

Mike Smith [not his real name]drove the consolidation of the IT software development methodology from a waterfall methodology with quarterly releases to a more agile scrum process with weekly defect releases and monthly sprint releases. This was done by investing in education and training/certifying employees as scrum masters.

In addition, Smith brought in agile coaches to work with the teams to mentor them and focus on adoption of agile processes. This resulted in a common process, release cycle, and environment refresh schedule across all development/scrum teams. We are now able to put together cross functional project teams with everyone understanding a common set of terms and methodology and deliver features quicker.

Judge's Comments

The candidate's ability to introduce change within the IT organization and improve staffs' skills allows the IT organization to effectively decrease the time to deliver new solutions and improve quality, keys to bringing increased value to the company.

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In the Ones to Watch case study above, an ambitious IT leader saw a problem and took the steps necessary to make a transformational change in the way his company did business.

People weren't speaking the same language (i.e. terms and methodology) and time to production wasn't where this aspiring CIO wanted it. Through training and certification, he was able to introduce and integrate an entire new methodology that resulted in IT being able to do more in less time.

"CIOs need to find ways to keep themselves informed, not just about technology, but also about business principles and the business of the business," says Wishon.

3. CIOs Are Masters of Network and Relationship Building

"Establishing and maintaining your network is essential and, at times, critical," says Wishon. Along with a CIO's great networking and relationship-building skills, they also have to be able to handle criticism.

The CIO, among his many responsibilities, works with internal groups--including developers, support techs, senior management, database administrator, project managers and every department head--and external vendors. Being able to communicate, articulate and influence people is a necessary skill. To make it as a CIO, Wishon says. "You've got to have thick skin and courage of your convictions."

Many times CIOs are walking around with a "bulls-eye" on their backs. When something technical goes wrong--whether it's the CIO's fault or not- it's important that people like you or, at the very least, have no reason to "get even" with you when something bad happens.

"I helped somebody transition to a new company as CIO. The former CIO was technically astute and almost indispensable, but apparently he had a loud, overbearing and borderline obnoxious personality that finally caught up with him. Here today, gone tomorrow," says Burns.

As a CIO, you'll likely be a part of many teams and working well within them is paramount to your success. "Listening to and understanding the direction that has been established by those who are in a position to make those decisions and the ability to work together with executive management are key skills, says Wishon.

Ones to Watch Award Candidate

Reason for nomination #1: Turned around a troubled initiative or organization or learned/recovered from a failure.

Two years ago Jane Anderson [not her real name] was assigned to take over as client director for a challenging and dissatisfied internal customer. We'd had a history of service outages and were dependent on legacy (mainframe) systems that had been up for replacement with two large project initiatives that had failed in the past. Anderson quickly established trust through listening, empathy and constant vigilance on service improvement and delivery. This trust allowed her to get needed alignment for the MF replacement project and she was able to get the project off the ground and delivered where others failed."

Judges' Comments

This is a great example of building relationships and trust with business partners and then delivering on the promise of a better solution.

Reason for nomination #2: "Corporate IT was focused on domestic and shared functions, while the International IT team associated with a nonintegrated acquisition were operating separately. One of our key initiatives was to unify IT delivery across business units and geography to a single function, while honoring and maintaining the levels of service and local needs in each area. Jane led a cross functional team that for the first time has been able to create a layered model of global and local with centralized and distributed functions that has found a good balance across all needs."

Judges' Comments

This shows strong leadership capabilities by building solid relationships with business partners, leading change initiatives within IT as well as in coordination with the business and delivering on expectations.

Both of the examples above underscore the importance of relationship-building, teamwork and having a great network. Whether it's stakeholder buy-in or convincing the CEO to go with a different technology, The bottom-line, Wishon says: " [CIOs] needs the ability to engage and communicate with others well."

4. Have a Solid Knowledge of Your Business and Industry

"If you focus specifically on the technology without knowing what the business objectives are, you're not going to be in the best position to know how best to leverage technology. You really need to understand the business problem the company is trying to solve to able to recommend how the technology can be leveraged," Wishon says.

Knowing the ins and outs of all your hardware and software is where the job starts-- what separates the leaders from the followers here is knowing well what your company's business is and all the details that surround that business.

Leveraging your knowledge of technology to meet the needs of the business is the name of the game and the personnel who can consistently do that will rise to the top. "When you spot a trend, it's tempting to jump on the tech bandwagon. This is the natural instinct of good technical people. The successful CIO will first build a compelling business case before recommending an investment in latest-and-greatest technology," says Burns.

5. The Ability to Market Ideas and Influence People

A CIO has to be effective at getting people onboard with his vision and solutions. CIOs need to be able to articulate the value proposition of any given project and align various people, departments and vendors around a common goal.

"The ability to establish and communicate the value and contributions that the IT organization is making or could make is a critical characteristic," says Wishon.

6. CIOs Excel at Recognizing and Growing Talent

One of the most important skills a CIO can have, according to Wishon, is the ability to recognize, secure and retain good people. It's impossible for a CIO to know and understand everything there is within the range and scope of technology.

Wishon says there is one rule that he always tries to follow throughout the hiring process. "One has to be able to rely upon good people. I always try and hire people who are smarter than I am," he says.

More to the Story

Although it takes many skills and traits to be a top CIO, the experts agree that this is still only a part of the equation. In order to be the best CIO, you have to be a problem-solver, have an enduring curiosity, and possess solid organizational and project management skills.

"The ideal personality is the type of person you'd see on ER, the type who can stay focused and undistracted no matter how noisy and distracting the background," says Burns.

Rich Hein is a senior writer for CIO.com. He covers IT careers. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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