CIO Career Path: Tips and Tactics for Advancement

This will not be news to you: The role of the CIO is a tricky one. It requires overseeing the day-to-day IT operations that keep enterprise information systems running and business flowing, while simultaneously serving as a corporate leader whose strategic vision will play an integral role in your company’s future growth. In these tough economic times, CIOs are also required to be aggressive cost-custodians, achieving maximum productivity with the fewest number of people. At the same time, CIOs are expected to work with business leaders to find new ways to drive revenue.

In fact, revenue improvement is one of the most overlooked areas in the role of a CIO. According to CogniTech’s IS Contribution measure, among business managers, the goals of cost-cutting and efficiency improvement are down about 33 percent, declining from 11.9 percent of total goals between 1991 and 1994 to 8.0 percent of total goals between 2006 and 2009. During that period, revenue-improvement goals almost doubled, increasing from 13.5 percent of total goals to 26.1 percent.

A big reason for the lack of revenue-enhancing efforts is that business managers typically don’t ask for them. That’s because, unlike with cost-cutting and efficiency projects, they don’t know what IT’s capabilities in the revenue area might be, so they don’t know what to ask for. It’s up to you to show your enterprise what you, and your team, can contribute to the bottom line.

Striking the right balance among these sometimes diametrically opposed roles is delicate, to say the least. For many, it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of constantly reacting to urgent demands, which prevents you from doing the strategizing you desperately need to advance your career. If you find yourself caught in that spiral, there are several tactics you can use to change your habits and improve your standing in the enterprise.

CIOs must have a balanced list of key responsibilities and focus on all of them every day. To do that, they need to delegate more, trust their leadership, read current research on industry trends and communicate more effectively. Otherwise, business leadership will lose faith, dramatically shortening the CIO’s life span at the company.

When running the IT organization, CIOs and other IT leaders must focus on the broader picture. Their mission is clear: The CIO is foremost a business leader–one who relentlessly delivers IT in support of business objectives, while continually seeking to drive down overall costs.

Knowing how to perform under pressure is also essential. Most CIOs we’ve spoken with want to be seen as the "go-to" person who can fix any problem and come through in the clinch. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. This takes intellectual strength, emotional resolve and work ethic. The secret? High performers behave no differently in high-stress circumstances than they do in ordinary situations. In addition, they’re always anticipating and planning for market changes before they happen, they view discipline as a given, and they understand the distinction between focus and concentration.

The CIO’s career is also shaped by the success (or failure) of the teams he leads. This is where the intangibles of management come in. Sure, you can provide people with all the tools in the world, but it’s your management skill that will really make your workers shine. You can set a motivational example with the values you bring to the workplace.

Equally important, it’s up to you to create a culture of trust in your organization, something that is sorely lacking in many enterprises. A recent Deloitte Ethics and Workplace Survey of 750 employees and 300 managers found that workers don’t feel that top corporate executives are providing enough transparency into the workings of the organization. Given this, many employees plan to leave their jobs once the economy rebounds. There are steps you can take to restore workplace trust, including using the technology at your disposal to enhance corporate transparency.

Of course, at the end of the day, career success also depends on how good you are at managing upward. Diamond Management & Technology Consultants’ third annual Digital IQ survey uncovers some disturbing news that indicates that the role of the CIO is weakening in some enterprises.

Diamond surveyed 724 business and technology leaders and found these three key findings:

  • Innovation efforts of three out of four CIOs were focused not on new products or services, but on internal business process or IT improvements
  • In more than half the companies surveyed, business leaders other than the CIO control at least 30% of the money spent on IT.
  • Firms with the strongest financial performance had strong alignment among the business and IT leadership, as well as strong mobilization and execution capabilities.

Innovative thinking and leadership abilities are the two top attributes wanted in a CIO from the 362 business executives surveyed by Diamond. Both of these attributes rank much higher for business executives than "deep experience in running IT operations." In other words, the business wants the IT executive to drive growth as well as lead the function.Understanding what’s expected of you from the C-Suite can be challenging. Even in companies committed to talent development, guidance to aspiring executives is often vague and contradictory. The road to advancement has plenty of pitfalls for those who don’t know how to decode the secrets of the C-Suite. Those employees who "get it" when it comes to these unspoken pathways to success are the ones who end up with the most senior-level roles.

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