5 qualities that make a good CIO

You have the job: you are the CIO. But which skills do you need to excel at it?

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Excelling at being a Chief Information Officer (CIO) is not an easy task.

On top of taking responsibility for all the IT and technology within your organisation, you are also expected to be a business leader and influence towards meaningful change.

Whereas there are some essential technical and managerial skills that you had to meet in order to get the job, other qualities, once met, will make you outstanding at it.

These qualities, if properly executed, are likely to put you in a privileged position that will foster respect and admiration among colleagues and stakeholders.

And although there is no limit to the skills that a CIO can have or develop, below we have listed the “five golden qualities” that you should master if you want to achieve professional success in your field:

Leadership

There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein which says, “the leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity… out of discord, harmony… and out of difficulty, opportunity”.

You are probably thinking that this sentence belongs to a motivational poster rather than a CIO feature on leadership skills.

However, if you examine it closer, the three key concepts in the Nobel Prize's piece of wisdom – simplicity, harmony and opportunity – couldn’t be more relevant for any manager who wishes to excel in their role.

Good leaders are defined and judged by their results, not their attributes. Sometimes we place too much weight in being overly charismatic and outspoken but when less than half of global professionals trust their bosses, it might be time to invest in core values that will produce positive results for your organisation and staff.

And yet, developing an emphatic and trustworthy management style is not an easy endeavour and you will need all resources at hand, as well as sincere commitment, to become a thriving leader.

Cushman & Wakefield - a  global commercial real estate firm - CIO, Kelly Olsen in an interview with sister title CIO UK explained how she has developed her management and leadership skills through a variety of exercises.

"I have taken part in some external activities to develop my skills in this area and have in the past used a mentor," she said. "I also read a lot and I am a fan of authentic leadership styles. In Spring 2017 I took part in a woman only leadership forum for the first time; this is about developing oneself as a better leader."

Some go even further an advocate for what is called the ‘transformational leadership’ model.

Far from being something new, the concept of transformational leadership was coined in 1973 by American sociologist James V Downtown.

In this model leaders encourage, inspire and motivate employees to innovate and create change that will help grow and shape the future success of their organisation.

But don’t despair if you still haven’t got there. After all, great leaders start off as great followers.

Business drive

Business drive is an essential quality for CIOs to guarantee the continued success and growth of their enterprise.

It means that you need to always keep a curious eye on trends, developments, new models and ideas.

CIOs today are expected to be business leaders, not just the IT-focused professional.

You need to come with visionary plans and goals that can make your organisation thrive.

While remaining focused on technology is still a necessity of the job, CIOs are now being challenged to use IT strategies and solutions to drive business innovation and transformation.

Strategic business is now an essential part of the CIO role and in order to be successful at it you need to embrace it without hesitation.

Toyota CIO and VP Albert Ma told CIO UK that he has seen IT become much more of "the business" in driving success within his organisation.

"We have seen a shift from back-office activities like process improvement and optimized efficiencies, to more customer-facing, revenue-generating capabilities," he said. "Our executives really understand this and we’re working together to see how we can drive business outcomes through the use of IT."

IT has become influential and proactive in the workplace due to smart CIOs presenting a business plan of how tech can help organisations drive against their competitors. In recent years, skills of leadership and networking alongside CEOs have become more important.

Being effecting when presenting to the boardroom can give talented CIOs a push towards joining the C-suite.

Adaptability

The Cambridge English dictionary defines adaptability as “an ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions”.

Sounds simple, right? And yet 88% of the companies that featured on the Fortune 500 in 1955 were gone by 2014 – either bankrupt, merged or fell from the top of the exclusive list.

Some well-known debacles include Blockbuster (remember the times when we rented VHS cassettes?), the omnipresent at family parties Polaroid, or once kids’ paradise, aka Toys “R” Us.

It would be simplistic to attribute the failure of these firms to a single factor. However, it’s not far-fetched to affirm that lack of innovation (in other words, adaptability) was indeed a crucial element in their collapse.

But a company won’t be able to adapt to new demands unless its leadership instigates it - i.e. unless the CIO is not able to radiate adaptability and innovation.

Craig Charlton, CIO at McLaren Group and one of CIO 100 2017, explains how adaptability is key at the time of influencing products, customer experience and services in his organisation:

“A one-size-fits-all IT strategy is old school. We need flexibility. We need to be able to embrace multiple technologies and figure out how to weave complex fabrics to build game-changing environments while building a robust core.”

People change, conditions change, trends change. Heraclitus of Ephesus already told us in the 5th century BC: panta rhei – everything flows. Change is a fact, why resist or deny it then?

Ability to adapt to changing situations and expectations is essential for any CIO that seeks success. Steering change is not enough: you need to respond to it, keep the game alive and if you can no longer play by the rules, create new ones.

Communication skills

There are probably not many jobs today that don’t require good communication skills. A CIO, however, needs to be able to master them.

Failing to listen, acknowledge and respect colleagues can have catastrophic consequences in your position.

Playing the blame game it’s not only counterproductive, it could damage your reputation and trustworthiness among your team.

Being able to communicate the change you want to see is essential to make stakeholders realise that is worth investing in. Listening is an underrated skill which once achieved can bring you endless benefits.

“A CIO’s ability to forge new connections is vital to solving problems in a quickly moving technology-enabled workplace,” says Peter Bendor-Samuel, CIO and contributor to CIO.com.

“And the communication skills a CIO demonstrates help the IT team understand the value of thinking in a more connected way with the business. This is crucial because business stakeholders — who have the funding purse these days — are tired of IT telling them what technologies to use.”

“Instead of IT telling them up front which technologies will meet their needs, they prefer that the IT team listen to them about the technology that they believe will support their needs and deliver value”, Bendor-Samuel says.

Although you might be an IT expert with a vast amount of technical and expert knowledge, your customers or board members might not.

At school, our best teachers were those who were able to explain to us the most difficult concept in the simplest terms.

In the UK, NHS Blood and Transplant Chief Digital Officer Aaron Powell experiments with language to improve communication with his team.

He worked closely with the least technical board member at the organisation, an eminent haematologist who struggled with IT, and framed their new strategy together so she could explain it to the board.

"That's what enables us to move forward," he says. "When the last technical people can actually understand it."

Collaboration

Together with communication, collaboration is one of the most important “people skills”. If communication skills are correctly executed, collaboration will come naturally.

Having a team you trust and that trusts you will not only produce outstanding professional benefits, it will also make work enjoyable and improve office dynamics, boosting productivity and morale.  

In another article, we reviewed how startups might be a good example to follow at the time of influencing a cultural change. 

Bringing pets to the office might not be necessary but looking for red flags in your colleagues and staff is not - be observant, care about your team.

Greg Morley, CIO of United Living, outlines his work philosophy around keeping his team engaged.

'I really value being authentic, present and aware,' he explains. 'So many people are coming to work with different issues going on in their lives, whether it's personal or work related. It's really important to be there for them and, inevitably, it pays off. They're going to be there for you when you're having a rough time or we are facing a challenge. That's worked really well for me so far.'

No one likes being micro-managed. Being able to delegate work to the appropriate member of staff is beneficial for you and shows that you are able to trust in your colleagues.

Avoid building walls and tackle problems before they become an issue. 

Remember that real collaboration delivers results and that the best projects have always been the product of effective teamwork.