by Eric Berkman

THE STATE OF THE CIO – Skills: The Knowledge of Successful CIOs

Mar 01, 200211 mins

If you want to succeed as a CIO, shut off the computer, toss aside the code and bone up on your corporate-executive skills. According to “The State of the CIO” survey, the single most pivotal skill for success as a CIO is the ability to communicate effectively.

Of 500 CIOs who participated in the survey, 70 percent picked communication as one of their three most important skills, 58 percent chose understanding the business process and operations, and 46 percent put strategic thinking and planning in the top three. In interviews, CIOs who took the survey say it’s tough to exercise any one of these skills without relying on the other two.

That these three skills top the list sends a resounding message that CIOs think they should play a major role in shaping and driving broad company goals. The skills most important to them are also valuable to every well-rounded business executive. Meanwhile, CIOs view hard-core techy skills as largely irrelevant. Only 10 percent of the survey pool identified technical proficiency as a critical skill, which is a big change, says Paul Ayoub, CIO of PMA Reinsurance Management in Philadelphia. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the CIO position was much more tactical than strategic, and the CIO was definitely more technical,” he says. “[The executive committee would] tell you, ’Don’t worry?we’ll figure out the strategic direction and you just make it run.’” (For more about the CIO role today, see “Responsibilities,” Page 50.)

The task for CIOs is to develop and refine these skills. Read on for advice about how to do it.

How to Learn to Communicate

“You can have the most wonderful ideas in the world, but if you can’t communicate them, it won’t make a difference,” says Margaret Myers, former acting deputy CIO and now principal director to the deputy CIO with the U.S. Department of Defense. Ron Margolis, CIO of the University of New Mexico Hospital System in Albuquerque, adds that a big part of the CIO job is salesmanship. If CIOs can’t communicate, their projects will die?either at the approval stage when the executive committee rejects them or at the implementation stage when users resist them, he says. Meanwhile, CIOs who can’t explain the limitations of technology will constantly face unrealistic expectations from end users and fellow executives, says Rob Paterson, CIO of Salem State College in Salem, Mass.

One way to develop communication skills is by listening and observing. Marion Mullauer, vice president and CIO of medical publisher Lippincott Williams & Wilkins headquartered in Philadelphia, says she spends a lot of time in meetings observing how people interact with each other, making note of what works and what doesn’t. For example, in a previous job, she attended a meeting during which the discussion stopped being productive. The two business sponsors of the project abruptly excused themselves and left the room. The rest of the group got so nervous about what the executives were talking about that they put the meeting back on track. Now, whenever Mullauer notices people in a group can’t reach agreement about a point, she’ll quietly ask someone to step outside with her. It distracts the rest of the group and helps break the tension, more easily than if she stays in the room, Mullauer says.

Catherine Rando, CIO and vice president of technology with Alliance Credit Union in San Jose, Calif., picks “mentors from afar” among high-profile leaders. She admires the speaking styles of Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy and former President Clinton. So after Rando hears one of them give a speech, she’ll print it out and review it line by line to see what she can learn. One thing she’s noticed: The most effective speakers?no matter how many topics they address?highlight one item they want listeners to remember, and always begin and end with that point. This technique helped Rando get off on the right foot in her current job. At her first meeting with the board of directors, she had 10 minutes to introduce herself and summarize her goals. While she covered several topics, she led off and concluded with the same point. Board members remembered Rando and her speech. “For a long time afterward, people would come up to me and tell me how much they liked what I presented,” she says.

CIOs frequently speak in front of groups, and Myers says she’s learned a lot about doing this from public-speaking courses. “I learned how to use my hands to get my point across and to make better eye contact,” she says. Myers thinks making good eye contact and gesturing has helped her appear more animated and forceful. She’s noticed that people pay more attention to her when she speaks.

Another way to get public-speaking practice is to join Toastmasters International, a club that sponsors workshops on public-speaking and workplace-communication skills. Glenn Headley, CIO of the Republic group of insurance companies in Dallas, says several of his programmers have been involved in a Toastmasters group at the company.

Although he hasn’t participated, he’s observed that it’s helped his subordinates overcome their shyness. “It’s also good training in helping you focus your thoughts on a topic and not wander,” Headley says.

James McNamee, CIO and associate dean of information services of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, urges CIOs and CIO wannabes to do as much professional writing as they can?even if it’s a business writing course. Not only will the practice improve CIOs’ written proposals, but it will make them better verbal communicators too. McNamee says his writing experience has trained him to organize his thoughts better before he speaks.

Meanwhile, a huge part of a CIO’s job is translating technical information for users, peers and superiors who don’t understand IT. One way to learn to speak in their language is by practicing on non-tech-savvy friends and relatives, says McNamee. “Take advantage of opportunities to answer your friends’ questions about their home PCs.” Above all, spend as much time as possible talking about technology to people in the different departments of your company, says Headley. “Experience is the best teacher.”

Ways to Get to Know Your Company

Understanding the business and all its discrete processes is critical for one key reason, according to Mike Walsh, CIO of Revit Technology, a 106-employee software company based in Waltham, Mass. “It helps you avoid looking stupid,” he says. That’s because if you don’t understand the business and its objectives, you have no way of prioritizing your projects, and management will resent you for wasting resources, Walsh says.

CIOs need to understand their business on two levels: one, general business and industry trends; and two, company knowledge. When Walsh decided he wanted to be more of a businessman than a technologist, he got an MBA. That gave him a broader understanding of business issues overall as well as the business objectives for his company. Joel Levy, senior vice president and CIO of The Segal Co., a $130 million HR, benefits and compensation consultancy headquartered in New York City, developed his understanding of how a professional-services company operates by working as an IT consultant for 16 years before becoming a chief information officer.

For CIOs who don’t have an MBA or haven’t spent time as a business-line worker in their industry, there are other ways to develop this skill. One way, Levy suggests, is to read industry journals. When he worked for Bausch & Lomb early in his career, Levy spent a lot of time reading the trade magazines for soft contact lenses and scientific instruments. “It helped me find out what our clients were doing and what our competition was doing,” he says. Now, at The Segal Co., he reads journals and reports on employee benefits issues religiously.

Republic’s Headley says he’s gained a deeper understanding of the insurance industry by attending certification courses for insurance professionals. He hasn’t been certified himself, but he knows what insurance agents’ jobs entail. Headley also attends industry conferences and has developed a network of CIO-level peers in the insurance business. By attending an annual conference on insurance industry documentation standards, Headley has learned that a new system he is designing to automate agents’ account management workflow must let agents personalize the set of procedures they follow based on the size of each account. “[The conference] helped me understand that not all agents work the same way,” Headley says.

CIOs also recommend spending time with end users. Levy advises leaving the office to walk the halls and talk to as many people as possible in other departments about what they do. Walsh suggests asking subject-matter experts?senior executives, midlevel managers or shipping clerks?in a specific business process for a tutorial. “If you don’t sit and talk to the users, you’ll never understand a process well enough to make a decision about the best or most cost-effective IT solution [for their] needs,” he says. For instance, a user may complain that it takes too long to process invoices. If the CIO doesn’t understand all the steps involved in generating an invoice, he might correct a symptom?by, say, installing faster printers?and miss the underlying problem that the company’s network is too slow.

Headley advises CIOs who are new to a company to schedule orientation meetings with key people in every business unit. “You’ll learn what everyone does and what their issues are, as well as their challenges, likes, dislikes and frustrations,” Headley says. Finally, Levy says, a good way to keep up on a company’s priorities is by reading all the publications its internal PR department puts out.

Tips for Thinking Strategically

Salem State’s Paterson defines strategic planning as trying to predict where an industry and business will be three to five years down the road and the technology that will get a company there. It’s an abstract concept; CIOs have trouble describing what they’re actually doing when they’re strategically planning. But whenever CIOs are freshening up on technology trends, engaging in discussions with executive peers about general business strategy, or dreaming up potential business scenarios and how technology can be used to prepare for them, strategic planning and thinking are what they’re doing.

Strategic planning skills are critical because without them the CIO can’t help his company respond to changes in the marketplace. Plus, good strategic planning and thinking skills can help the CIO have influence beyond the IT department. As one of the few people who works with every business unit, the CIO is in a position to see more possibilities for how technology can help the company be more competitive, says Lippincott’s Mullauer.

But developing that skill is complicated. CIOs are hard-pressed to give advice on how to think. Instead, they say it’s a skill that has evolved naturally from their educational and work experiences. Nonetheless, CIOs suggest the following ways to refine strategic planning and thinking abilities.

Find a mentor. This can be someone inside or outside the company. Mullauer met Jack Thompson, now-retired CIO of McCormick & Co., through a professional group. He’d share his planning documents and templates with her. “I learned from him how to recognize the big picture, how to keep [my ideas] focused in business terms and structured techniques for presenting them,” she says.

Attend company planning sessions. At these meetings, CIOs can see the strategy development process in action, including brainstorming and scenario-based planning. Mullauer advises CIOs to invite themselves to these meetings if they’re not already part of the planning team.

Advise another business. PMA Reinsurance’s Ayoub serves on the IT advisory committee for a software company. In that role, he gets additional strategic-planning experience and meets with other CIOs. “I hear them talk about issues and challenges they face, which helps me anticipate the direction of my own company and where we need to go regarding our technology and business strategy.”

Delegate tactical tasks to staff. This gives CIOs more time to build relationships with colleagues who can provide a big-picture view of the company and where it needs to go, says Mullauer.

None of these skills is easy to learn, and they take years to master. But CIOs who take the time to develop them should excel in their jobs. “Just as you have three cogs that need to fit together for a clock to function, these skills are the three cogs [that make a CIO] successful,” concludes Paterson.