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Pathway to the CIO Role: Three Skills that Prepare Tech Professionals for the C-Suite

An upwardly-progressing manager needs to demonstrate experience in effectively using technology to meet business goals.

by Karen Armon, November 2010

Jared Gauthier loves technology. In college, he tinkered late at night with software code. His first job, almost 15 years ago, was as a software engineer. Over the years, Jared has received increasing responsibilities as a team leader, project manager and group manager. Jared now has his sights set on a CIO role. During a recent meeting, Jared asked me, “I know that the CIO role is changing rapidly due to today’s market. What skills do I need to get myself ready for a CIO role in three to five years?”

Jared is a classic example of professional managers today who have a desire to move up in their organization. For Jared and others who are taking a proactive approach to their careers, here are the three master skills that will put them on the path to the CIO role. 

Master Skill #1: Have Progressive Technology Experience

A solid foundation in technology — in hardware, software and online tools — is an essential first step. However, your professional development must move beyond becoming an engineering genius in one type of technology. If you simply specialize in the technology, you won’t be prepared for the C-suite, and you won't be valued in the top ranks.

To advance to the next step, an upwardly-progressing manager needs to demonstrate experience in effectively using technology to meet business goals. You need to be aware of how technology is used by the end user, and keep yourself educated about where technology is going.

Taking part in the technology application process inside your company is a rich source of progressive education. As technology becomes more egalitarian in its application, both internal and external customers are focused on how to apply it for business uses and revenue add-ons. One great example is how initially, cell phones were designed for mobile telephony purposes with additional features to move the customer to buy. Now, cell phones are thought of not just as telephone devices, but as personal computing platforms designed to serve lifestyle needs, from gaming to financial management.

To gain progressive technology experience, read materials by key research centers, such as Georgia Tech’s Research Institute or Accenture’s Technology Labs, which are looking into innovative uses of technology. Subscribe to online technology publications such as Fast Company, Enterprise Innovation, and Profit Online, where information about customer innovation is pushing design teams to find revenue capabilities for technology. Follow key thought leaders in the industry who propose new ideas about technology. 

Master Skill #2: Get a Broader Business Perspective

Stephen Brown, CEO of PreCare, Inc., believes that in the future, CIOs may come from non-technological backgrounds, such as marketing, finance or consumer products roles. “As more and more executives become more comfortable with technology, the CIO of the future will be less about technology itself and more about how technology can be a strategic differentiator,” he says.

No longer will being the best technologist in the company lift middle managers into the C-Suite. CIO.com confirms this in their August 20, 2010 article, “The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead”: “CIOs who can only take orders, who can’t speak the language of the business, who can’t step out of the proverbial back-office and into the front lines of customer service, social media or supply chain management, will soon go the way of ancient tech gear — remembered fondly on occasion but sidelined in the future.”

Although most CIOs today are not selected from other functional roles, managers who wish to move up in roles must learn how technology is shifting — both within the company and with key customers. To understand these shifts, keep in touch with customer care professionals who respond to customer complaints or requests, and learn how customers are using technology.

Additionally, review with the sales teams what feedback customers are giving them in the field. Matt Wald, Partner of Context Advisory Group, believes that IT professionals must learn to identify, advance and build technology strategies that achieve business objectives: “They have to become more like business people than engineers.”

To get a broader business perspective, future CIOs also must understand how customers interact and build trust. They must know how to adapt quickly to customer demands, and build fluid delivery models. “IT professionals need to embrace the fact that they are no longer the backroom engineers that just produce what the specification required,” warns Wald. “They no longer have the luxury of shifting the risk of technology application to front-line organizations.” 

Master Skill #3: Take a Proactive Role in Managing Your Career

The single most important thing aspiring CIOs can do is to take the development of their career into their own hands. Waiting for someone to discover you as you sit deep within the organization is just not likely to happen. 

C-level executives are partners, first, with the CEO/President and are responsible for what he/she is tasked to accomplish. CEOs are focused on five major issues as the head of the company: market share growth, revenue preservation and growth, customer demand, stockholder returns, and business regulatory compliance. C-level leaders are also partners with each other and must be able to translate these five major issues into strategic direction setting within their particular function.

Most technical professionals, however, are perceived by top executives as not understanding the business or lacking in leadership skills. Randy M. Knutson, former Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer with ING, suggests that middle-management professionals need to be proactive in managing skill sets and knowledge development. “Keep an interest in your technical training and become more interested and proactive within the business,” he says. “Be aware of upcoming business initiatives and volunteer to participate in early design discussions or pilot programs.”

Being able to effectively communicate to the business is another key skill for future CIOs. While a CIO is expected to be able to manage technology, budgets and projects, Brown says that future CIOs must be able to explain how technology will impact the organization in financial terms, and to inspire and motivate others in order to get their strategies adopted.

To master this skill, Brown recommends that IT professionals spend some time outside of the IT department and ask to rotate work in other departments. Wald suggests taking business classes outside of your field of technical expertise, or listen to public company’s investor calls to get an idea of the business issues firsthand. 

The Pathway into a C-Suite Role

No longer is depth of experience in one area or field enough to move up into the C-Suite. Nor will those who take a passive approach to their career ever achieve their goals. Rather, those who are upwardly focused must become job-ready during their own time and through their own initiative. 

For those who want a top spot in the future, there are clear steps to take:  

  • Understand the Heart of the Business. Get to know the fundamentals of business and of your particular company. Build strong sustainable relationships both inside and outside your organization. Expand your horizons beyond technology.
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  • Know the Value of Technology to the Business. Understand the level of IT maturity with your company. Make realistic plans to create and demonstrate value for your technology solution. Build trust and credibility by understanding your internal stakeholders’ needs.
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  • Collaborate Across Silos for Growth. Find ways to collaborate with others and extend your skills and knowledge through these interactions. Test your leadership capability and learn how to listen for strategic challenges where you can provide value.
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  • Develop Opportunities to Connect with Customers. Stretch yourself by finding opportunities to connect with customers. Volunteer for marketing, sales, or customer care projects. Learn what customers want and how they view the company from a product/service standpoint.

Karen Armon (www.MarketOneExecutive.com) is an executive-level career coach and author of the book, Market Your Potential, Not Your Past. Get her new free eBook, Ten Micro-Trends that Impact an Executive’s Career Today at http://www.marketoneexecutive.com/ebook.asp.