by Martha Heller

The Top Skills for Successful CIOs

Jan 15, 20076 mins

Lay the groundwork for your next career move by mastering the skills to s쳮d as CIO.

A generation ago, if you could claim a 10-year career as CIO, you were probably nearing retirement. After all, the position was only really formalized in the mid-1980s.

Today, however, an entire generation of CIOs exist who have spent a decade or more in the role but who are only 46, or 41 or (gasp!) 35. Retirement is not on the horizon for these executives, who still have a whole leg of their career ahead. So what does the future hold for these IT leaders? Some will maintain their CIO title and progress to larger and more complex organizations. Others will move across the enterprise and into the business. A handful will push the boundaries of what it means to be a CIO.

As the new year unfolds, it is clear that there has never been a better time to be a CIO. Most of you have a seat at the table. The line between the business and IT is blurring. New career trajectories are open to you. But you can capitalize on these opportunities—traditional or otherwise—only if you are strategic about your career.

And that’s what we’ll talk about each month in Career Strategist, a new column whose goal is to help the CIO build a strategic career plan. In this column, we will codify the career trajectories and offer case studies of CIOs pioneering these roles. We will talk with CEOs and others who influence who gets hired and why. We will offer advice for positioning yourself for the future while in your current role. In short, we will provide practical guidance for achieving your career goals.

I speak to CIOs every day who confide that they would like their next opportunity to be something “challenging” with a “growing company” where they can provide “leadership.” They have a generic understanding of what they want but no plan, no strategy, for achieving it. This never fails to amaze me. CIOs work so hard to be strategic in their technology leadership. Why not be strategic about your career?

Of course, a strategic career plan is a moot point if you’re not cutting it in your current job. So let’s set that foundation first by reviewing the basics: What are the top skills you need to be a successful CIO? To find out, we asked several CIOs for their thoughts and have listed the results by priority.

Change management. Whether it is business process reengineering, organizational restructuring or a new strategic direction, change can wreak havoc on a company. Leading through that change is probably the most critical skill a CIO can possess. Says Jody Davids, CIO of Cardinal Health, “This is the skill my staff, my peers, and my manager all value in me the most. And it is the skill I’ve worked the hardest to acquire. Our company is changing all the time, so I need to keep the IT organization moving forward.”

Organizational leadership. Leadership is about modeling the way, creating a compelling strategic vision, and prioritizing the development of your staff. “Without developing a real competency in leadership, you will not be successful,” says Jeff Campbell, CIO of BNSF Railway.

Relationship building. In every company, there is opportunity for tension between IT and other departments. The CIO’s ability to build a bridge between IT and sales, marketing, and other lines of business can make or break an IT strategy. “You can only build real relationships on credibility,” says Davids. “Credibility comes from the consistent ability to deliver on your promises.”

Knowledge of the business. While the business may “own” its individual processes, it is the CIO’s responsibility to understand the business and how its processes integrate across the enterprise and how employees engage in them. An effective technology strategy cannot exist without business process expertise. “As CIOs, we are in a unique position to understand the operations of a company,” says Rebecca Rhoads, VP and CIO of Raytheon. “Our responsibility is to pop the hood of the car, understand how the engine is designed and fine-tune it.”

Running IT like a business. According to Accenture CIO Frank Modruson, this is more than sitting in on business strategy meetings and learning to speak in business terms. “We are a service provider and need to act like one. If you do things like presenting IT as a menu of products and services from which the business heads choose their service and pricing, you will create a real partnership with your business peers.”

Financial acumen. It all starts and ends with financials. “You need to understand the revenue stream of the company and where IT fits into it,” says Modruson. “Every IT investment should have an ROI.”

Accountability. Delivering on your promises and owning up when you cannot is key to establishing the credibility to succeed as CIO. “I’ve seen time and again where IT projects are late and CIOs neither accept nor enforce accountability,” says Campbell. “If you do not have the courage to hold your people accountable and deal out the consequences, you will not be successful.”

Risk management. Every new technology investment brings an element of risk—in security, availability and change—to an organization. Yet companies that avoid risk entirely may miss out on critical technology innovation. “I used to think that we needed to be better systems engineers so that we could prevent any possibility of risk,” says Rhoads. “But with today’s pace of innovation, we need to focus just as intensely on responsiveness and adaptability. It’s not just working to prevent risk, it’s learning to deal with it.”

Learning. Technology and its application to business are in constant flux. A CIO needs to learn from each new experience and embed that learning into the IT group. “Today’s iterative nature of cutting in new technologies and layering innovation on top of innovation necessitates that we build an organization that is constantly learning,” says Rhoads. “If we are not always learning from our successes and mistakes, we cannot exploit new technologies in the best interest of our companies.”

Core knowledge of IT. For Campbell, “This is the price of admission. CIOs who grew up in technology have already mastered this skill, but new CIOs—40 percent of whom now come from the business—need to surround themselves with people who have that deep domain knowledge. They need to learn the core technology issues and not fall for smoke screens.”

If you can place a check mark next to each item, you’re ready for a new career opportunity. But before taking that next step, says Raytheon’s Rhoads, “stay in a CIO role long enough to make a significant contribution to the organization and to acquire all of the experience and learning that the role has to offer. You are going to rely on it again someday.”

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership

Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. Reach her at