John Edwards
Contributing writer

6 ways to reinvent your IT leadership career

May 31, 2022
CareersIT Leadership

Is your IT career ripe for a do-over? Then check out these ways to pull yourself out of a rut and get back on course.

rise of the chief digital officer woman with wings fly flight growth looking up by caracterdesign g
Credit: caracterdesign / Getty Images

In an industry where second chances can be hard to come by, IT leaders who find themselves stuck in jobs with limited flexibility and potential can break free from their current predicaments and get back to building careers rich with satisfaction and growth.

The CIO role is undergoing fundamental changes as enterprises alter their expectations for how IT capabilities are deployed, says Elizabeth Ebert, CIO advisory partner at IT services firm Infosys Consulting. “Every CIO we work with is experiencing these shifts,” she notes.

Are you ready to begin creating the career you always wanted to have? Then check out these six ways to reinvent your IT leadership career without leaving your current post.

1. Refocus your leadership

Ebert advises CIOs to gradually transition from their focus on IT planning, investment, and delivery to influencing and collaborating with enterprise leaders. This reinvention enables CIOs to achieve their IT goals with a maximum business impact. “When we see IT as the ‘go-to’ function for cost take-out and budget reductions, our concern is that IT leadership has not been able to deliver a narrative around business outcomes and value creation,” she says.

Digital transformation initiatives are effective platforms for developing new business models, customer experiences, business innovation, and data-centricity. Such platforms can transform IT from a cost-center into a partnership in which the CIO collaborates with management to build revenue and other tangible positive business outcomes, Ebert explains.

2. Widen your scope

Try not to get stuck in any particular functional lane. “Going deep and becoming a true expert in an area is obviously good, but periodically ask yourself if you’re missing the proverbial forest for the trees,” suggests Brian Keare, CIO at data analytics firm Incorta.

Focus on business outcomes — not individual tools, Keare advises. Build knowledge by investigating the entire IT landscape, not just specific areas. In IT, it’s easy to become obsessed with cutting-edge technology. Remember, too, that gadgets and software are only one piece of the puzzle. “Tools need to be leveraged successfully by people, and people need to have coherent processes that can be combined with the tools in order to drive successful business outcomes,” he says.

Keare believes it’s important to turn knowledge into action. “Translate what you’re doing into tangible impacts for the rest of the company,” he recommends. “Force yourself to think strategically about how your efforts can turbocharge the organization and you will be on your way to becoming a much more effective IT leader.”

3. Acquire business expertise

The easiest way for CIOs to reinvent and elevate their position is by acquiring business insight. Becoming financially knowledgeable and gaining the ability to talk insightfully about risk mitigation, as well as becoming a trusted advisor when it comes to detecting potential growth opportunities, is a reinvention that benefits both the CIO and the entire enterprise, says Charles “Chuck” Everette, director of cybersecurity advocacy at cybersecurity firm Deep Instinct.

Everette notes that a CIO needs to understand their enterprise’s revenue sources, as well as the value of all revenue streams. “In order for today’s CIOs to be successful, they need to be able to apply a proper risk profile to each revenue source,” he says. “This will help them identify where spending, in the form of upgrades, cybersecurity, and other critical expenditures, need to take place in order to protect those revenue streams.”

Strong business knowledge is essential because CIOs often find themselves handling business-critical responsibilities related to risk assessment and enterprise future-proofing. “Careers can be greatly enhanced by broadening their focus from an IT management and cybersecurity perspective to one that includes the ‘strategic big picture’ and how it affects the overall business,” Everette says.

4. Build your own business

Esther Strauss, co-founder of Step By Step Business, a small business advisory firm, suggests that the best way for a CIO to reinvent a career is to launch an advisory business based on their specialized talents. “For example, with the right skills, they could start a cybersecurity business,” she says. Opening a side or full-time business allows a CIO to take control of their own time, income, and future. “It doesn’t take much of an investment to start most IT businesses, so there’s not much financial risk,” Strauss notes.

The career risk is also minimal, Strauss observes. “Any former CIO is very employable, so if [a full-time] business doesn’t work out, they can always reenter the job market,” she says, adding that the key to starting a business is learning and understanding entrepreneurial processes.

5. Embrace multiple roles

There’s no law that limits CIOs to a limited set of pre-defined IT responsibilities. Rakhi Oswal, CIO at clothing retailer Edrio, took this idea to heart by extending her reach into several IT-related business areas. “As my company’s CIO, I realized that my work-scope had become much more dynamic in the fast-paced digitalization of the corporate world,” she explains. “As a result, I reinvented my career by including the qualities of a business leader, talent scout, change agent, and technology guide for my company.”

Oswal says the reinvention proved beneficial for her career by helping her reimagine the role of technology in her enterprise, and how she could play a more significant role in its overall growth. “Apart from my professional growth, it also helped me deliver better results and create a foundation for future growth,” she adds.

As she was reinventing herself, Oswal also worked to ingrain an enhanced technology culture within her organization, encouraging close collaboration between individual tech leaders and their teams.

6. Sharpen your soft skills

Most CIOs spend a significant amount of time honing their IT abilities and staying up to date on the latest technologies and trends. Relatively few IT leaders, however, dedicate themselves to refining their soft skills in such critical areas as leadership, collaboration, and team building.

“Developing your interpersonal skills to be adaptable to the needs of different staff members, and what they need from leadership, will enhance your value at any organization,” suggests Volodymyr Shchegel, vice president of engineering at cybersecurity firm Clario. “You may have climbed your way to CIO because of your technical prowess and innovative ideas, but if you aren’t a people person, you’ll have a tough time in leadership.”

Soft skills can be acquired gradually during spare hours with little or no disruption to regular tasks and duties. Potential benefits include faster career advancement and improved staff morale and productivity, Shchegel notes.

Shchegel recommends beginning the reinvention process by taking courses and classes on public speaking and business networking. “Even doing improv classes or seeing a therapist will help you become more comfortable with talking to people and truly leading them,” he says. “Find some leaders you admire beyond the tech space and really dissect what makes them great.”

Soft skills acquisition doesn’t require a major personality change or a commitment to insincerity or phoniness. “It’s about choosing to work on leadership skills with the intention and goal of being a more compassionate, intuitive, and approachable leader for your team now and in the future,” Shchegel says. “Especially since CIOs are increasingly involved in business decisions, being able to have soft social skills can truly future-proof your career.”