by Christopher C. Barron

Why you are NOT the CIO (and what to do about it)

Jan 27, 2017
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Many IT leaders aspire to the top position, yet the rapid pace of technological change has left most confused about how to compete.

tech leader jeopardy
Credit: Thinkstock

There are many outstanding technology leaders throughout the United States. Quite a few of them are excellent managers with tremendous potential. Yet, when it comes to career progression and earning that corner office, a large number of these leaders fail to make that final ascension. Some of this failure can be attributed to the scarcity of opportunities, but most often these individuals lack in other areas.

Some assembly is required

Unlike the IT shops of the past, which mostly consisted of internal resources grouped into functional and technical areas, the organizations of today are vastly different. The onset of cloud technologies has taken “bedrock” internal functions and moved them to third parties. Couple that with the amount of work (infrastructure, networking, coding) done by consulting partners, aspiring leaders are often left wondering just exactly what it means to be the CIO.

It is this confusion that has obscured the line of progression that a person can follow to get to the top of the IT function. Yet, for all of the change happening in our modern technical renaissance, there are three key considerations that have always defined who gets the CIO seat and stays there.

Fortune favors the bold

Over the years, many of us who hold leadership positions have met others who are our peers or have roles that we covet. Many times upon meeting these people it is easy to see, at least on the surface, that they are very similar to us. Unlike a charismatic titan like Anthony Robbins who became a mega-star through the force of his personality, these people appear to be ordinary in the way they dress, speak, and act. Without any obvious distinctions to set them apart, many people wonder how it was that these men and women came to be in charge of hundreds of workers, nine-figure budgets, and the technological destiny of multinational corporations.

Without context, almost nobody can understand the individual journeys for each of these people. But one thing is certain. The people who have attained these highly sought after positions have asked for them. That’s right – anyone who has made it to the level of CIO has asked for the role – often repeatedly. Jeff Haden of Inc. Magazine wrote an excellent article about the topic of “luck” last year. While he makes the case the you have to put in the work to achieve anything of significance, in his fifth point he is clear that you rarely get the things for which you fail to ask. Getting promoted to CIO may be the result of luck, but this luck is something you can create by consistently asking for what you want until you actually get it.

Speak to me softly (about money)

Every year, hundreds of new technologies emerge and many of them spawn some sort of acronym. While these abbreviations are helpful to the tech-savvy professional, they also create a barrier to communications with executives who are not in IT. Quite often, frustrated CFOs and CEOs complain about the difficulties of understanding the “alphabet soup” of technical jargon.

It can be very comfortable for an IT leader to slip into “tech speak” for several reasons. After all, it is not easy to describe complex technological concepts and devices without referring to the science behind them. It can also be a point of pride to demonstrate a mastery of IT by using the language and terms that come from an advanced understanding of the craft.

If you want to be a CIO, don’t fall into this trap. If there is one universal “kiss of death” to the progression into the executive ranks, sounding like a propeller head would be it. No long term CIO will ever be overheard weaving IT acronyms into a discussion with the CEO.

Fortunately, the language spoken by CXOs is and always has been the language of money. After all, why do businesses exist if not to generate profit? The successful CIO and those aspiring to the position will never go wrong by translating IT concepts into terms of cost and revenue. Always keep the focus on the value of IT to an organization by centering communications around the effect on profit and loss. By keeping this point in mind, a leader can avoid the trap of being typecast and show true affinity with other business executives. This advice is timeless.

Quit acting and start producing

Many IT leaders, not yet at the CIO level, attained their upward career progression by demonstrating excellence in a specific function area, such as applications or infrastructure. But as Marshall Goldsmith described in his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, these skills won’t get you to the corner office. Being an infrastructure genius may lead to a vice president title, but those skills are not going to gain you the CIO title. That job is completely different, if done correctly.

Think of the whole of IT as a Hollywood movie. The cast is made up of actors who in most ways are the face of the production. But the actors just take and execute the orders that they are given. It is the producer that calls the shots, approves the cast, and allocates funds. A great example of the difference in roles is the Transformers movies, the fifth of which is coming out this year (2017). Although several different actors gained significant notoriety from starring in several of the films, it is Michael Bay, the man who directed all the installments, that has completely controlled their careers. He has also received more financial compensation than all the other cast and crew combined.

The point is that to be considered for the CIO role and actually be able to perform within it, a person must stop making individual contributions. The focus must become all about orchestration of the whole by working through others. This point may seem obvious but it is the most difficult transition for an IT professional to make.

Making the grade

If you have aimed for that CIO promotion and something is holding you back, chances are that the problem is a combination of these areas. Remember that the requirements for holding the only C-Level IT position are much different than those of any other role in the organization. If your career progression is in need of a boost, look to the bigger picture for solutions.