John Edwards
Contributing writer

7 leadership traits major enterprises look for in a CIO

Apr 27, 2022
CIOIT Leadership

Are you ready to make the move to a big company? Better stretch yourself now to ensure you have what top-tier enterprises seek in a top-post IT leader.

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Credit: Thinkstock

While many, perhaps even most, CIOs are content to head operations at a small- or midsize enterprise, others have loftier ambitions. These individuals wish to climb to the very top of the IT career ladder.

CIOs at major enterprises — particularly those with market capitalizations measured in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars — tend to be a different breed than their lower-level counterparts. IT chiefs at the largest enterprises are typically expected to possess knowledge and skills that may be minor, or even completely unnecessary, talents at smaller organizations.

Understanding exactly what top-tier enterprises are looking for in a CIO candidate is essential for any IT leader who’s hoping to make the leap from to the majors. The following seven attributes are commonly found on mega-giants’ “CIO must have” lists.

1. Transformational leadership

Major enterprises generally prefer CIOs who can become transformational leaders, possessing the vision and ability to develop innovative technology strategies that support future growth opportunities. Transformational leaders inspire their teams to embrace change, innovate, and shape the future of the entire organizational structure.

Displaying an executive presence is, in many ways, the key differentiator of a CIO who is viewed as a run-of-the-mill technologist versus someone who will be a major contributor to the organization’s overall strategy, says David E. Ulicne, senior director of executive education at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. “The most important attribute for the success of the CIO would be their ability to articulate [their] vision and gain support of key stakeholders.”

Ulicne observes that transformational leadership is typically an acquired trait. “Practice, practice, practice to gain confidence and build your storytelling skills,” he advises. Speak before audiences at IT conferences and symposiums. “Film yourself delivering a 10-minute presentation and ask your PR/media team to provide you some constructive feedback,” Ulicne suggests. “Register for an executive skills development program to obtain training from experts.”

2. Business acumen

These days, all major enterprises require a technology blueprint that can be fully integrated into the master business strategy. “They essentially need to be one and the same,” says Amanda Alwy, senior vice president for North America innovation and IT at workforce consulting firm ManpowerGroup.

A CIO is a business leader through technology, just as a CFO is a business leader through finance. “It cannot be the other way around,” Alwy says. Regardless of where an enterprise is in its transformation journey, it’s technology that drives customer experience, efficiency, productivity, and ultimately, growth.

To prepare for a job in the big leagues, Alwy recommends spending time with business colleagues, customers, and clients. “This will ensure you can both build relationships for team and business success, and be an active and knowledgeable strategic advisor on business priorities,” she explains. “It’s remarkable what a CIO can impact through cross-functional collaboration to inspire innovative and business-minded solutions.”

3. Resourcefulness

A resourceful CIO is able to blend prior experience with multiple variables, such as accepted frameworks, methodologies, and cultural and political landscapes. “In essence, the new CIO, when effectively using resourcefulness, is in the best position to challenge the current paradigm of the enterprise and chart the path forward,” says Greg Bentham, vice president of cloud infrastructure services at business advisory firm Capgemini Americas.

Joining a major enterprise and establishing trust within a new organization is perhaps the most challenging task a CIO will ever face. Many obstacles will inevitably surface and need to be resolved. While prior experience and frameworks can be applied, reality suggests that history never exactly repeats itself. Top enterprises expect that their new CIO will possess the knowledge and creativity to overcome even the most challenging barriers.

The best way to become resourceful is through direct experience gathered throughout an IT career, particularly experiences that spurred organizational changes, Bentham says.

4. Adaptability and resilience

In today’s cyberworld, CIOs are positioned at the helm, steering their enterprises toward new opportunities while facing constant technology challenges, including the rapidly growing amount of data enterprises must store, analyze, and protect.

There will be times when seemingly promising opportunities and approaches simply do not work. “Instead of being viewed as failures or setbacks, those experiences should be seen as lessons; opportunities to grow as a CIO,” advises Earl Matthews, president of backup and recovery services provider Veeam Government Solutions. “Individuals should use these challenges as an avenue to learn more about the job and environment, which in the long run will result in a stronger leader.”

CIOs must be able to lead diverse teams. They should be able to communicate effectively with highly technical employees as well as to individuals with little or no technical knowledge. Having the ability to understand and work alongside other top executives to create opportunities and solve problems that benefit the entire organization is also crucial to a CIO’s effectiveness at a major enterprise.

Adaptability won’t just allow a CIO to become an effective executive, but also a strong enterprise leader.

5. A data-centric mindset

Data and data-harnessing technology form the fabric that enables major enterprises to produce game-changing outcomes. Data policies should embrace usability and ubiquity, enabling enterprise-wide access to relevant data and empowering end-users to act in the moment, says Mike Capone, CEO of business analytics platform provider Qlik. “In practice, this means a much bigger commitment to the cloud, automation, and generating consumable insights for every level.”

Today’s C-suite demands that the entire organization be data-driven. “Every survey you see from leaders like McKinsey and Gartner makes that very clear,” Capone says. “We know that organizations that are effective at leveraging data navigate disruptions more easily and win more often,” he notes.

Whether it’s developing and deploying strategies, selecting vendors, or rolling out new enablement efforts, Capone says that top-tier CIOs must keep asking themselves a single, critical question: How will this decision support and further the goal of getting more data into the hands of more people, when they need it, to ensure a positive business outcome?

6. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ), is the ability to understand, use, and manage personal emotions in positive ways to communicate effectively, reduce stress, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and prevent conflict. In practice, EQ enables a CIO to build trust, collaborate, and create strong and nimble teams.

“Today’s CIO must collaborate across all business units and coordinate infrastructure, security, and disaster recovery functions while also managing expectations and receiving direction from the board,” says Andrew “AJ” Jarrett, director of cybersecurity defense and compliance at IT services provider AMSYS Innovative Solutions. Major enterprises typically prize high-EQ CIO candidates because such individuals are better equipped to function collaboratively, build mutual trust with colleagues, and attract other talented individuals. “A CIO can be the smartest, most technically capable person in the world, but if they are not able to collaborate expertly, they will not be successful in executing their vision,” he states.

Many business leaders, coaches, and authors believe that EQ can be improved over time with study and practice. Jarrett advises current and future CIOs to hone their EQ skills by participating in collaborative projects, “both as a leader and as a follower.” He also suggests reading books on the topic, such as Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves.

7. Communication skills

All IT leaders must be exceptional communicators, yet CIOs at major enterprises operate at a far higher level than their smaller-organization counterparts. It’s primarily a matter of scale. Everything is larger at a major enterprise — the number of systems, teams, managers, locations, divisions, and so on. As a result, there’s a lot of information to acquire, digest, and relay to other parties.

“[CIOs] must be able to effectively and concisely convey and translate their thoughts into actions, in order to facilitate dialogue between different teams,” says Cleo Valeroso, vice president of global people operations, at ZEDEDA, a distributed edge orchestration and virtualization software provider. A major enterprise CIO must also be prepared to communicate effectively with management, clients, shareholders, media, market analysts, and government officials.

Valeroso advises aspirational CIOs to recognize and understand the unique responsibilities that accompany employment at a top-tier firm, and to prepare accordingly. “Participate in activities that might be out of your comfort zone to help develop your skills and broaden your knowledge.” she says. “Also, keep learning to keep your mind sharp and your skills up to date.”