With the technology landscape in constant flux, getting certified on the latest tools and techniques can be a valuable way to advance your career \u2014 even for IT leaders.\n\nTypically, CIOs consider certifications as a means for training up IT staff on vital skills around key initiatives such as cybersecurity, data analytics, AI, or the cloud. But certificates, even technical ones, can be an important part of any IT leader\u2019s career journey, giving them hands-on experience, strategic insights into emerging technologies and methodologies, and the possibility to grow their peer network.\n\nSaurabh Chandra, managing director at Boston Consulting Group, says, \u201cEnterprises today demand customized solutions to meet their specific business needs. However, most CIOs have failed to keep pace with fast-changing technology. As a result, they procure solutions off-the-shelf rather than developing them in-house. This leads to IT not seamlessly aligning with business.\u201d\n\nFunctions such as sales and marketing have all undergone a significant change, as has the technology needed for them to perform optimally. For instance, a lot of IT leaders don\u2019t know that data today has three streams \u2014 sciences, visualization, and engineering.\n\n\u201cCIOs won\u2019t get this knowledge from their peers. Certifications is a way through which CIOs can stay abreast with the latest,\u201d Chandra says.\n\nIf leveraged properly, certifications can also assist IT decision-makers in their key leadership responsibilities. For example, Puneesh Lamba, CIO of Shahi Exports, an apparel manufacturing company, acknowledges that \u201ccertifications have helped him perform better in board meetings, thereby making it easier to get approvals on IT spending.\u201d\n\n\u201cTypically, CIOs from large technology companies have strong IT skills but poor communications skills, while it\u2019s just the opposite for CIOs in customer facing B2C companies. These technology leaders need to get certified in areas that they lack. While CIOs push their team to get certified, they need to come out of their comfort zones and follow suit,\u201d says Chandra.\n\nBut the benefits of certifications won\u2019t accrue automatically. IT leaders seeking to advance their skills and careers need to build a strategy aimed at squeezing the maximum value out of what certifications can offer.\n\nHere, four CIOs share their experiences in pursuing certifications and offer advice on how to make the most of these valuable career advancement tools as an IT leader.\n\nCreate a personal learning plan\n\nWith IT pros increasingly pursuing certifications in a wide range of trending technologies such as AI and the cloud, it\u2019s tough for an IT leader not to just go with the flow and seek out the latest hot credentials. But going with the flow is exactly what Lamba of Shahi Exports cautions against.\n\n\u201cEvery CIO should create his or her individual learning path. Instead of joining the rat race, he or she should come up with a personalized list of certifications to complete over the next 18 months. The courses should be shortlisted, keeping in mind both the individual\u2019s interest and the organization\u2019s need,\u201d he says.\n\nLamba has charted out such a certification plan for himself. \u201cI am passionate about AI and data science, and have systematically acquired certifications in these areas,\u201d says Lamba, who is set to pursue his third certification in data science.\n\nAnd, given the value of your time as an IT leader, it is important to ensure the certifications on your short list are truly valuable, says Sunil Mehta, president and systems director for South Asia and Southeast Asia at advertising agency WPP.\n\n\u201cThere are certifications, and then there are certifications that matter. Getting certified after attending one to two hours of a local online course doesn\u2019t add true value,\u201d Mehta says.\n\nInstead, Mehta advises taking structured courses from recognized sources, such as top universities.\n\n\u201cWhile hiring, companies often shortlist candidates with certifications from renowned colleges and universities. Some specifically ask for certain globally recognized certifications. A CIO\u2019s chances of moving up the value chain increase if he has such certifications under his belt,\u201d Mehta says.\n\nMehta earned a Certified Information Security Auditor certification in 2002 when, he says, \u201cthere were only 1,600 such certified professionals globally.\u201d In addition to the CISA, he has an ISO 27001 Lead Auditor certification and is currently enrolled in a Certified Information Security Manager course \u2014 all best-of-breed and globally accepted certifications.\n\nPut your knowledge to the test\n\nAs is true for any IT pro, it\u2019s vital for IT leaders to apply their newfound knowledge practically, or else the certification will end up being just a piece of paper.\n\nSourabh Chatterjee, president and head of technology, digital sales, and travel at Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, says, \u201cAt the end of the day, it is the content, faculty, and case studies of a course that cumulatively open the mind. Without implementing the knowledge thus acquired, a certification will only serve the purpose of self-gratification.\u201d\n\nChatterjee, who has an executive MBA from INSEAD, has found an innovative way to apply this knowledge: He gets involved in projects, though not as a manager. \u201cI take hands-on responsibility of a particular aspect of a project. It could be coding, designing, process flow, testing, or architecture. This not only helps me to put into practice what I learned in a certification course but also enables me to stay relevant by getting insights into crucial aspects of a project such as human behavior, technology, content, and motivation,\u201d he says.\n\nSimilarly, Shahi Exports\u2019 Lamba applied the lessons from his AI certification course to make a significant impact on production. In one of his earlier organizations, Lamba found a high rejection rate for a mid-product, which was moving ahead in the assembly line and impacting overall production.\n\n\u201cI had come to know about the disruptive power of AI through a certification course that I undertook from MIT Sloan School of Management. By implementing it, we were able to bring down the rejection rate from 6.2% to a mere 0.8%. This is also the best way a CIO can get the top management to sit up and take notice,\u201d he says.\n\nMove toward becoming a \u2018business CIO\u2019\n\nOf course, IT leaders should focus not just on technical certifications but also on those that can enhance their roles as business strategists.\n\nWith technology so vital to every facet of the business today, CIOs need to think strategically in helping tackle the challenges confronting business units across the organization. This is where management development programs from reputable institutions can play an important role.\n\nTo strike a balance in his learning plan, Lamba keeps a 50:50 mix between hardcore technology certifications and those that hone his business skills. \u201cFor every AI and data science certification, I also undertake a business certification that helps in enhancing my behavioral and influencing skills, enables me to build a business case for technology, and aids me in transforming the IT department,\u201d he says.\n\nIT leaders should also consider broadening their knowledge of the industry in which they work, says Mayank Bhargava, chief technology and data officer at Pramerica Life Insurance.\n\nTaking courses regularly in a particular industry domain can \u201clend an edge to a CIO,\u201d Bhargava says. \u201cIf I have to remain in the insurance industry, I have to continuously build on my knowledge base.\u201d This approach is similar to what several regulated or licensed professions require of their practitioners to ensure their skills remain current.\n\nBhargava has a Life Office Management Association (LOMA) certification, which provides information on insurance operations and products. To gain better understanding of how pricing and valuation work, he is planning to do a course in actuarial science soon.\n\n\u201cCompleting LOMA certification and becoming a Fellow, Life Management Institute [FLMI] put me in the league of limited insurance professionals who had a global accepted certification for life insurance domain. This made me a preferred choice as a knowledgeable domain expert for my employer\u2019s international life insurance clients, and brought better opportunities for growth, career enhancement, and further learning,\u201d Bhargava adds.