by Julian Goldsmith

CIO View: You don’t have to live and breathe IT here, but it helps

Jun 28, 20116 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

In a recent article, IT head-turned-recruiter Alan Mumby suggested that appointment boards are looking for CIOs who have no inherent interest in IT. It may sound strange that IT bosses shouldn’t have a passion for the work that their department does, but Mumby points out that recruiters are looking for CIOs that only see technology for what it can do for business, not a thing of beauty in its own right.

Does this mean the job of CIO isn’t open to dyed-in-the-hide techies?

On the whole, CIOs tend to agree with the spirit of what Mumby is saying, but with the reservation that to deploy effective IT into a business, the IT leader has to have as in-depth an understanding of the capabilities of the technology – something that rarely comes without a little time on the shop-floor.

Here are the responses from some of the CIOs and other IT leaders who read the article:

A successful CIO needs to have a combination of strategic understanding, insight as to how their business really operates and a feel for end-user behaviour.

An overly technical CIO can be at risk of implementing technology that has a great spec sheet but is either irrelevant to users’ day-to-day lives or too difficult to use.

CIOs need to be able to put themselves into shoes of their customers, business units and the individual and make sure that they have the tools that they need to succeed.

This means you need to be able to step back and observe how individuals and organisations are relating to IT services, rather than worrying about the detail of how the IT services are delivered. Richard Wilson, director of IT service & operations at Cable&Wireless Worldwide

CIOs need to have a passion for driving a business forward through the effective use of IT. And, in that sentence, Business comes before IT.

The board will be looking first to see that they have an equal business partner but will quickly expect a creditable solution.

An effective CIO cannot be wholly business or IT focussed but must understand both sufficiently to be the originator of the innovation.

However, the IT knowledge will have been acquired through being at the sharp end as an apprenticeship before then moving into being a business domain expert; for me that is the perfect mix as anything else is not well balanced. Jon Baker, director of business technology for media distribution & consumer products licensing at The Walt Disney Company Europe, Middle East & Africa

I would suggest that Alan is correct. Effectively an appointment board is looking for someone who can translate and manage the IT community within the organisation and its supply chain.

To achieve this, a candidate needs to show they can get the right things done and be sufficiently detached from the engineering to make the right business calls. Chris Airey, CIO at Bezier

Mumby makes an interesting point here and I think he is half right. Yes, you have to be very interested in what IT can do for your organisation.

And, you have to have a good understanding of the business that you operate in. But in my experience, managers or directors with a superficial (consumer-level) understanding of IT can set direction and blue-sky.

But, they are useless when it comes to making progress past the sticking points in projects that demand a technical or practical understanding to resolve; or to add value to a team of techies when they are having an operational problem that needs lateral thinking driven by insight and understanding.

I used to have a boss who was forever telling us to ‘get out of the cornflakes’. He was absolutely correct in terms of dealing with business colleagues or the board.

But, when it comes to helping your team deliver, there is no substitute for some knowledge of what it is they are trying to achieve. Nic Bellenberg IT director at Hachette Fillipachi

Alan’s article is a good one, and makes very well observed points.

I would totally agree that CIOs do not need to have worked the IT coal face – I am a living, breathing example of this.

I would also agree that appointment boards and company boards are not much interested in a CIO’s big passion for IT – they want to see someone who is business focussed and able to understand and deliver business advantage through IT.

However this is not enough. A CIO still has to have a big passion for IT. He or she has to be a plausible leader to the IT Team, and has to be able to make the right strategic and tactical IT calls – something not easy to do without a great knowledge and passion for IT itself. Keith Hopkinson CIO at Genus

Acceptance of the value IT can bring to an enterprise, can be accelerated or enhanced by a CIO that can provide insight into the technology and its impact on business success.

Without this perspective, business leaders can lose confidence or belief in a technology; if they don’t feel like the CIO has invested time or has interest in it. Robert Teagle EMEA IT director at Starbucks Coffee EMEA

This is a classic question. There are many important qualities of an IT leader but as the use of technology evolves the in depth technical knowledge of a CIO becomes less and less important.

How we lead and develop our teams and our service partners is a core skill for the future bread of CIO’s.

In addition, our ability to interact with all parties at the very highest level in our businesses and beyond in a non technical way is a key differentiator to the new breed of CIO’s.

Many CIO’s with a technical background struggle to make the transition to become the one of the new breed of CIO’s who are able to work with the rest of the leadership team to develop a business.

The focus on developing value through technology rather than being focused on technology as an outcome is the key difference. Andrew McManus, IT Director at NEC Group

Chris Airey is speaking at the CIO UK Transformation Summit on July 6 at the Mercedes Benz World in Brooklands