What makes a successful CIO: A complex mix of skills

A closeup of arrows sitting in a target after having been shot.

This is the first instalment of our two-part series on the role of the CIO. To investigate what makes a CIO successful and how they can drive strategic direction in the boardroom, Cyr Cornberg, Senior Director within BIE’s IT & Technology Leadership Practice, with over 26 years’ experience focusing on interim hires within the IT & Technology market, spoke to four experienced CIOs – Julius Christmas, Group Chief Information Officer at Saga plc, Phil Curnow, ex. Technology Director, Pizza Hut UK & Europe, Nick Skelsey, ex. Director of Technology at Harding+ and Mark Reid, ex. Interim Chief Digital & Information Officer at Anthony Nolan – to get their insights and advice.

It’s an exciting time to be a Chief Information Officer (CIO). Technology is now a major driver of business growth and the role has expanded to match. As Julius Christmas puts it, “We have moved from a world where technology was a tool to solve business problems to one where technology actually defines the art of the possible.” The CIO has grown from managing the IT function to being a key member of the executive team. 

So what makes a successful CIO in the current climate? According to Phil Curnow, “Being willing to listen, to explain, to demystify. If you want to be taken seriously as an integral part of a business, you have to be able to think about that business first, and how technology is at the core but still just an enabler.”

“The ability to engage and communicate effectively across the organisation, build strong senior stakeholder relationships, and inspire great performance from your team, stand out as the most critical. It goes without saying that CIOs need technical credibility, but the skills which got you to this point aren’t those which will you keep you thriving,” says Nick Skelsey.

Today it’s about so much more than the traditional IT function. A CIO must be a strategist, a communicator, a leader and a motivator. It is a complex and challenging role.

What’s changed?

The main task of a CIO used to be managing the IT department. The focus was on technology infrastructure – ensuring reliability and security. Today, the priorities and expectations are very different. There’s far more emphasis on strategy and every decision a CIO makes has to deliver results, drive the business forward, improve efficiency or speed growth. It’s not just about the latest technology; to be successful, CIOs need to focus on achieving specific goals and adding real value.

“The expectations of what stakeholders and employees expect from an IT function have continued to rise, driven by both commercial demands put on them and the increasingly ubiquitous nature of technology in everyday life,” says Nick Skelsey.

CIOs are now strategic partners in the business, working hand-in-hand with other C-level executives. They concentrate on business goals and align the technology with those goals.

It requires strategic skills and business acumen, on top of a technical background. “The skillset required is more rounded than previously, with a focus on business outcomes, communication, negotiation, stakeholder management, technology adoption and being comfortable in the limelight,” explains Julius Christmas.

A CIO needs to have the right leadership skills and technology expertise to ensure their organisation is well equipped for the digital world. Rather than just supporting business needs through technology, forward-thinking CIOs are using technology to help create new business models and tap into more revenue streams.

Digital transformation

Digital transformation is fundamentally changing how organisations operate and serve their customers. Every organisation is on this journey, and CIOs are expected to lead. 

There’s a lot at stake. When digital transformation goes wrong, it often goes badly wrong. Negative impacts range from temporary financial losses to permanent reputational damage. CIOs need to take on that responsibility. They are accountable for getting the strategy right, and for implementing the new technology. CIOs are also tasked with selling the benefits of digital transformation to everyone in the organisation.

Digital transformation is disruptive. It can involve significant changes to workflows, processes and even corporate culture. It often meets opposition from employees. People dislike changes if they see them as threatening, or feel they are not supported. Senior staff, including board members, may also be resistant to new ways of doing things. 

The best CIOs bring everyone on board and make the transition as easy as possible. They handle concerns with tact and equip everyone with the right tools and skills to ensure change happens smoothly.

Phil Curnow likens the role to be being a change agent; realising that it isn’t about “managing” it is always about “leading”. The shift of so many businesses’ core to the digital platform means that there has to be a constant focus on the right leadership, providing high levels of service and making changes to mission critical systems.  Phil continues, “there has to be alignment between the business and the technology teams, on the whole “who, what, why, where, when, and how”, and all must be vested in any changes.”  Modern teams have to act as good partners both internally and externally in order to succeed together.

Being accountable

The CIO is also expected to manage compliance issues and cybersecurity. The severity and frequency of cyber threats keep going up. Organisations have to be vigilant to protect their systems and data. This requires an effective cybersecurity strategy and having the right protections and emergency response plans in place. 

It’s the CIO’s responsibility to understand the security landscape, identify and mitigate risks, ensure infrastructure is resilient, and do whatever must be done to protect everyone from security threats and data breaches. The buck stops with the CIO.

Seizing the day

CIOs need an agile mindset. The technology landscape keeps changing. Nothing stays still. They need to react and make decisions quickly.

They must watch current and emerging trends, and be able to identify which will impact their organisation. They need to spot opportunities presented by new technologies and anticipate what might be coming down the line. And they must also be opportunists – ready to take advantage of the next innovation, the next technology, the next game changer.

Setting the culture

Another key part of the CIO’s remit relates to corporate culture.

CIOs need to be standard-bearers for new technology. They should promote a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. Just like leading on digital transformation, this requires excellent people skills.

Internally, CIOs must lead, inspire and motivate teams. They also need to build relationships with other departments like finance, marketing and HR. The more technology spreads through an organisation, the more important these relationships and lines of communication become.

Relationships with external partners are important too, especially hardware and software vendors. Nurturing those relationships can bear fruit in many ways, from discounts to access to new technology.

Mark Reid offers this advice: “You can have the best technology in the world but unless you bring your board colleagues and the business with you then you will struggle to release the value from these investments. Building those relationships should be seen as a critical part of creating your strategy and plans.”

What next?

The pace of innovation never slows, it only accelerates. Right now, technologies like AI are changing the game again. After AI, there will be yet another ‘big thing’.

The role of the CIO will need to keep changing too. However, one thing is certain: CIOs will be more and more critical to every organisation’s success.

The demand for skilled CIOs will keep growing. Competition for top talent will always be fierce. The winners will be those who keep adapting and expanding their skillset to keep ahead of the game.

To be successful, CIOs need to drive and deliver change, both within their own team and the wider business. “This requires empathy and the ability to put themselves in others’ shoes coupled with resilience and self-belief” says Nick Skelsey. “Leading technology is never a straightforward ride, and whilst taking the inevitable knocks may require some course correction, the CIO has to maintain rock solid belief in their overall direction across the organisation and in their own team.”

Our CTrO series continues in Part Two: CIOs are ready to step up to the boardroom to drive strategic direction.

For more information on how BIE can help you build IT leadership talent across your organisation, please contact our team.

Written by

Cyr Cornberg

Cyr is a Senior Director within the IT & Technology Leadership Practice at BIE. He has over 26 years’ experience focusing on interim hires within the IT & Technology market.

Cyr has an exceptionally strong network built over the past 26 years, which includes Strategy, Architecture, Programme Management and Technology Leadership.

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