CIOs get the CEOs they deserve

two_men_shaking_handsCEOs get the CIOs they deserve. That was a recurring theme of this year’s CIO 100 reception at which the leading transformative CIOs in the UK were honoured. I was reminded of this phrase recently by CIO UK Editor in Chief, Mark Chillingworth, while we were discussing the current state and future of the CIO role. As a former CIO and as someone who now advises, coaches and writes about the role, this is a subject close to my heart.

In his blog post following the CIO 100 reception Jerry Fishenden neatly summarised this theme by saying that it reflected how “top calibre CIOs have both backing and buy-in at the highest levels to deliver their true value.” In other words if CEOs and boards give their CIO the support and endorsement they need then they are far more likely to deliver and add value to the organisation.

However, getting the CIO you deserve starts much earlier with the decision to recruit a new CIO and the drafting of the job description and the required experience and skills. And this is where a lot of organisations go wrong; job adverts for CIOs and IT Directors often describe a technical role requiring knowledge of specific systems and technologies. And they will usually state that relevant industry experience is also a prerequisite. Recruiters will often filter candidates based on the technical requirements of the role, as these are easier to match on a like-for-like basis; if the client wants SAP experience but a candidate’s CV doesn’t make a reference to SAP then they could well be rejected regardless of their broader experience or suitability for the role.

About a year ago a leading recruiter described the process that many clients go through when recruiting for a new CIO. The recruiting executive will often start with a broad and balanced list of requirements covering business and technology experience – the type of spec that one would expect for a senior business leader. But as the discussion moves on and the recruiter tests which criteria are most important to the client, the requirements narrow down and usually focus on the technical aspects. This process continues when the client gives feedback on sample CVs provided by the recruiter to refine and confirm the brief. The result is the recruiter is often asked to find a senior technology leader, usually someone who is already in the same industry and who has experience of the same systems and infrastructure as the hiring organisation.

Organisations that follow this path should not be surprised when their CIO is technically focused and, whilst they may do very well at maintaining and gradually improving the technology portfolio, they may not be the transformational and innovative influence the organisation actually needed. But it is the CIO they asked for and therefore deserve.

But this is a two-way street and the converse is also true; CIOs get the CEO they deserve. If you act and sound like a techie then you will be treated like one. If you cannot contribute to the wider business then you will not be involved in defining strategy or leading transformation initiatives. If every day you are reinforcing the stereotype of the CIO as the senior techie then you cannot complain when the CEO and the rest of the board treat you accordingly. And if you apply for any of those technically focused CIO roles then expect to work very hard to change the perception that your new colleagues will have of you and your new role.

CIOs need to view themselves as business leaders who are responsible for technology, not pure technology leaders. They need to sound and act like a business leader, take a business focused approach to leading the IT function and contribute to issues and subjects beyond technology. They have to earn the trust and respect of their C-level colleagues and they have to build their credibility beyond technology. If they can do this then their CEO and the rest of the board will also view them as business leaders. And they will indeed deserve that position.


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