What CEOs expect from a top-performing CIO

….and what does outstanding CIO performance even look like?

A few weeks back I did an interview with Mark Samuels for Silicon.com as part of a piece on “What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO?” For those of you who missed it here it is with some bits that missed the final edits :

The starting point, says Jardine Lloyd Thompson CIO Ian Cohen, is to understand your personal attributes (or strengths)  and those of your team rather than focussing on potential weaknesses and trying to fix those. “You cant ignore weaknesses but an outstanding leader will focus on their strengths – and those within their teams – and look to exploit them. For example , they will seek out their natural communicators – the ones who have a talent (or strength) for building great relationships – and orientate them to towards their customers so that thay can do even more with that talent. Effective dialog, in business speak (not techno babble), is your currency and you need people who have this as their strength.

“We spend way too much time trying to turn people into something they are not and fix their weaknesses,” he says. “It’s complete nonsense to think that fixing something bad will create something great. If you take ‘bad’ and just invert it – you get ‘not bad’, which is light years away from ‘great’. Find the activities that strengthen you personally, and the people you lead, and look to do those activities more often.”

When it comes to personal capabilities, Cohen is well aware of his own strengths. He says he “happens to be good at technology” because of the chronology of his career and an employment path that has included senior IT positions at media giants Associated Newspapers, Financial Times and Lloyds TSB.

Technological nuts and bolts
However, Cohen is also open enough to recognise that an aptitude for IT is not necessarily his most important individual asset. “For me, focussing on the nuts and bolts of technology doesn’t make the working day whiz by. Sure I know how stuff works and increasingly the hybrid CIO is going to have to stay abreast of how things work (our customers are becoming far more tech savvy), but it’s not exciting emotionally,” he says.

“My real strength – the activity that strengthens me – is creating an environment where bright people can do great stuff. I’m a story teller; painting pictures about what might be possible through the exploitation of existing and new technologies. That’s when time races by and I’m at my most animated and enthused.”

That sense of creation is something Cohen believes is a core feature of an outstanding CIO. Top technology chiefs, he suggests, will recognise how different members of the team contribute to the organisational whole: “You need to orient people, and the business, around individual strengths. You need to know how to combine people to create more effective teams and to develop next-generation leaders.”

If Cohen is right, helping to make the most of your – and your team’s assets – is crucial for the successful CIO. But what does the boss think? What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO, and how can an IT chief develop the leadership skills that constitute an outstanding executive?

Customer awareness and project skills
For Vin Murria, CEO of Advanced Computer Software Group, strong customer awareness and an ability to deliver projects are of paramount importance.

She is an experienced business leader, having previously been CEO of CSG and chief operating officer at Kewill. Drawing on her experiences, she suggests the CIO’s job is really no different to the CEO’s.

“We’re both here to help deliver benefits to our customers. It’s just that, in most cases, the CIO is great with technology and the CEO is more attuned to the business,” says Murria. Sceptics might suggest that the second point is the difference.

Too many CIOs lack ofbusiness acumen. But it does not have to be this way, suggests Murria – and a new cadre of business-savvy IT executives are coming through.

“It’s not so much the technology bent, it’s the commercial recognition that helps them prove why it is worth investing in new IT,” she says.

Development of the next generation
Like Cohen, then, Murria recognises that technical aptitude is just one tool in an outstanding CIO’s kitbag. And like Cohen, she also says a top executive will prioritise the development of the next generation: “IT has really created the foundations for its own success but you have to be constantly thinking about what you’re going to do next,” she says.

A focus on the career ladder comes naturally to recruitment specialist Tim Cook, who runs the CIO practice for Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), a search firm with more than 300 consultants based in 40 offices around the world.

Cook receives regular briefings from CEOs about the type of CIO they are looking for. And such searches, he says, are often framed by the question: “What does outstanding look like?”

When it comes to answering the question, Cook says CEOs often frame their description in communication terms: “We want someone that’s one of us; someone who can talk about the business and be part of the business,” he says, referring to the specific language of business leaders.

Strong business communicators
CEOs do not talk about technology but they do talk about specific IT issues. Cook says UK bosses talk about how technological innovation can be used to address modern business concerns. Here, they might talk about collaboration or the way technology can be used to communicate with customers across multiple channels.

“CEOs are looking for people with strong communication skills. They’re looking for negotiation and the ability to push back. It’s difficult to learn later on in life. Get on top early and you’ll have more chance to move your career on,” he says.

“Business executives won’t care about the specifics of technology. CIOs need to frame the business case in terms of profit and loss. And talking in terms of business outcomes will clearly be helpful. CIOs need to talk the language of business and some are now making that transition.”

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