CIO Background Check: IT Experience Mandatory?

What if the incoming CIO of a Fortune 500 company has no prior IT experience? Chris Curran explores what kind of experience a CIO needs in order to sniff out trouble and inspire colleagues.

I appreciate all the insightful feedback from my last article, "The Three Types of CIOs: Are You and Your Company a Match?" Many of the comments distinguished between CIOs who excel in one area—some of whom move on to new jobs once they have to stray from their comfort zones—and CIOs who can successfully bridge the gaps and become effective jacks of all trades. But let's add a twist: what if the incoming CIO of a Fortune 500 company has no prior IT experience?

Is it enough to lead an IT organization, especially a large and complex one, without any relevant IT background? Moreover, can this CIO find the right perspective to inspire and lead IT managers, analysts, and developers—and bridge the gap between technology and the business?

I recently raised these questions online and the vast majority of respondents expressed that a CIO must have a deep IT background to be successful. The questions themselves point to the unique makeup of the CIO's role. Information technology is the only part of the business which is both a line and a staff function.

Consider other areas of the enterprise. The CFO comes up through finance, and clearly fills a staff role. Likewise, sales is always a line function, and never thought of as a staff role. The career path for each of these functions is unambiguous; nobody questions whether or not the CFO is aligned with the business, or whether he or she is delivering business value. In other words, it would sound absurd to make the distinction between "finance" and the "business." However, drawing this line in the sand seems normal in the realm of IT.

Does Background Matter?

IT's inherent dual role fuels the debate over what background gives way to the ideal CIO. Some would say CIOs should have a business background and they can learn the technology side. Others (the majority, from what I've found) argue that any CIO without the technological know-how will lack the ability to truly understand the costs, content, and possibilities of technology in the organization and the industry.

But it is exactly because of this dual role that the CIO should have a dual background. A CIO needs to have deep understandings of both the technology and the business. Balancing the two sides is essential because it likely is not enough to lead an IT organization, especially a large and complex one, without any relevant IT experience. Moreover, CIOs in this position may find themselves struggling to find the right perspective to inspire and lead IT managers, analysts, and developers.

Identifying the ideal CIO candidate for a company obviously involves more than just looking at a candidate's IT experience. A broader set of skills and experiences should be considered, such as:

  • Leadership abilities;
  • Hands-on technology background;
  • Experience in leading large change programs;
  • Experience in running successful IT infrastructure operations;
  • Management experience in a non-IT function;
  • Innovative thinking that can solve relevant industry and business issues; and
  • The ability to understand how projects and operations impact corporate financials.

Furthermore, a CIO candidate should be evaluated in light of the skills already present in the senior IT management team, because strong lieutenants will always be a critical factor in a CIO's ultimate success. But if the CIO has no IT background whatsoever, will he or she be overly reliant on these associates? What happens when a project gets to the point where the CIO needs to get his or her hands dirty and dig into the details?

The ability to draw upon personal experiences to sniff out a poorly-designed plan or to diagnose a troubled project is the single most important reason for the CIO to have IT experience.

A CIO with no IT knowledge brings an incomplete perspective to the table, regardless of leadership ability. As one commenter noted in the CIO/CTO Leadership Council LinkedIn group, there is a distinction between "IT experience" and "technical experience," and a CIO needs to have at least knowledge of IT. In short, the commenter said he believes a CIO can be successful without technical experience—but that a lack of IT industry knowledge could create a significant roadblock to achieving the organization's goals.

Assuming that the CIO participates as a full member of the executive group, the business perspective is represented by all of the functional and business heads, and the CIO brings the unique IT perspective—sounds like a complete team, no? Without a technology-savvy CIO, the executive team lacks an integral role player.

Chris Curran is Diamond Management & Technology Consultants' chief technology officer and managing partner of the firm's technology practice.

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