by CIO UK Staff

How to become a CIO: Essential career tips for getting a job as a CIO

Nov 13, 2019

In today’s digital world, you’d be hard pressed to find an organisation that doesn’t have a dedicated member of staff overseeing the entire IT function of the business. Traditionally, those who take on that role are known as the Chief Information Officer, or CIO, and are increasingly viewed as one of the most important members of the C-suite team, working closely with the CEO.

The role of a CIO means handling a wide range of responsibilities and there are a number of skills worth having – both strategic and technical – that will help you get promoted to the coveted position.

Here, we take a look at a number of qualities that anyone looking to make a success of the CIO role should aim to embody.

Communication is key

An important part of being a CIO is the ability to communicate, be it across the IT team, divisions of the company, or when reporting to the CEO.

While this is a skill that can be developed throughout your career, it’s a good idea to learn some core communication basics when applying for the role. Being a confident speaker is a crucial skill for aspiring CIOs as the role is likely to position you as the ‘bridge’ when providing feedback and talking in front of large groups in meetings or presentations.

However, it’s not just your peers and other members of the C-suite you need to be able to communicate effectively with. Your team will be made up of individuals from different backgrounds and experience levels, meaning it is important you know how to best engage with all of them.

United Living CIO Greg Morleysays that working with the ‘junior board’ at his organisation helps him to keep younger staff members engaged, and that their enthusiasm can give you a new angle on even the most routine task. “Ensure the younger audience is not only heard but given a seat at the table”, he says.

Compass Group’s CIO Craig Charlton agrees, stating that if you “cannot listen, engage, envision and enrol your organisation at multiple levels, you will remain in the back office”.

Whether it’s online or face-to-face contact, having an open and welcoming approach to people can have an impact on the initial relationship as well as help maintain existing ones. As a CIO it is likely you will be expected to pull your weight across various areas in the organisation. When a problem arises, it tends to be the CIO people go to for help – especially when it’s IT related.

Knowing how to solve these problems is essential. Have an open mind and always be alert, whatever the issue. This is also where communication comes in, as team members will feel more comfortable talking to you if you are able to communicate effectively.

Enhance your knowledge

It requires time, dedication and hard work to help you progress to the role of CIO. Making yourself known by developing your skills, attending networking events and gaining valuable experience can ensure you are on track to the best of your ability.

However, if you didn’t study a computer science related subject at school, the role of CIO is no longer out of reach. Executive search recruiters Alan Mumby and Caroline Sands say the days of coming from a tech background are gone.

Tailoring your CV to the industry or role and by looking at the specific requirements can help demonstrate your skills, experience and expertise for the job, while also getting you ahead of other candidates.

While having a computer science degree is not a bad thing, CIOs are equally likely to have studied music or German. Intellectual dexterity is key, and a degree from a Russell Group university is a must.

It’s all about how you apply the relevant skills to the role and push yourself to meet the changing demands of the customers.

Wandsworth Council’sformer Head of IT David Tidey says updating skills should be like implementing new technology. CIOs should often refresh their skills by going on training and development programmes. This can help them to get ahead of their competitors, boost confidence and earn credibility in their role.

Challenge yourself

According to Harvey Nash, almost half of CIOs are experimenting with technologies and taking risks in the organisation. Former Leeds’ Building Society CIO Tom Clark ran ’90-day challenges’ to change process, communications, and systems to help solve a problem or seize an opportunity.

Others, like 2017 CIO 100 entrants Rachel Dunscombe, Alison Fitzgerald and Alan Crawford, are taking on additional responsibilities to help further their CIO careers.

Most recently, NHS Digital Academy appointed Rachel Dunscombe as its Chief Executive on a part-time basis alongside her role at Salford Royal Group.

Understanding areas of the business that might not naturally align with your job role can also prove beneficial to CIOs. For example, as a CIO you have purchasing power which means it’s important to have an understanding of finance. Talk to your finance team and understand how they view IT from a cost perspective. Having a better understanding of figures, accounts and profit-and-loss will significantly smooth your progress to becoming CIO.

Furthermore, taking risks as a CIO can make you stand out and present yourself a leader. CIOs should challenge themselves by making executive decisions, leading group presentations and stepping outside of their comfort zone. This will help you learn from your mistakes while providing new opportunities to move the business forward.

Global Radio, Royal Society of Chemistry, Belron and the Financial Times have all experimented with digital technology to help transform their business strategies.

VP of Digital Development at Avon, Nick Burton, told us at the 2016 CIO Summit: “Don’t be afraid of putting your neck out when you see something that could really make a difference to your business or an approach to something that is really transformative. Be prepared to stick your neck out and say this is something we need to experiment with.”

Build your brand

Don’t be afraid to pay attention to your personal branding. People need to know how great you are. However, good personal branding requires delivering on promises, and a sense of your own limitations. Here are mistakes to avoid when branding yourself.

One way you can make your profile bigger is by using social media. While there are a number of different elements that add up to a personal brand, the proliferation of social media over recent years means it is now the easiest and quickest way to develop a reputation.

That doesn’t mean posting cat pictures on Instagram, but understanding every media you use, having goals for each, and achieving them efficiently. We have guides for prospective CIOs when using LinkedIn, Twitterand even Facebook. Read them. Use them.

Act as a leader of change

Reinvent yourself when you need to. The tech changes, the challenge changes, the business changes – change with them.

It’s vital that CIOs can adapt to the needs of both the business and its customers. At the CIO Summit, Burton also shared his experience of working in a fast-paced environment and how new CIOs can be adaptable in their roles today.

“Be really connected to what’s really going on in the world,” he said. “Take time to explore new services, new apps and the consumer space.”

CIOs can inspire change within an organisation by developing their managerial and leadership skills in a mentoring role.

CIO 100 organisations including Belron, the Francis Crick Institute and Bellrock have put a mentoring system in place to help with career development. Coaching, workshops and peer observations can help CIOs to understand the next steps they need to take in their career path.

Outside of mentoring, CIOs are also likely to be at the forefront of transformation in an organisation. This can be in the form of delivering ideas in everything from new business models, to solutions and processes – whatever it is, a CIO is expected to have unique strategies for the growth of IT and other areas in the business.

The key is to always stay focused on what can be done better. Whether something is or isn’t working in the present, there’s always room for improvement.

London City Airport’sAlison Fitzgerald uses her position as COO to promote a “professional, straight-talking, approachable style of leadership” which helps earn her respect in her role.


The power of relationship building can lead to new business opportunities, contacts and job roles.

According to Spiceworks, 56% of IT professionals are planning to improve their networking skills to help drive innovation. Although CIOs have demanding schedules, these can be a great platform for CIOs to learn from one another and take their business forward – so read our guide for how to network effectively as a CIO.

Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trustformer Director of IT Mark Large advised: “To be open, to share and talk to people.”

“I’m lucky enough to share the CIO council, which is a group of 35 on average attendees per meeting. It’s all about sharing and those joining as a CIO can get a leg up as well as those who have been around a while who have got plenty to learn and being open in talking to people.”

Rosie Slater-Carr, CIO at the British Red Cross believes that networking with other CIOs is a vital part of her job.

“[It’s important to] have conversations with other organisations and other CIOs. Those meetings are so important in terms of how much richness you get from them. Everyone in the sector is incredibly supportive of each other and I just find that it really makes the job even better.”