What CIO Wannabes Need to Know About Where the CIO Career Path Is Heading

Don Tennant

If you’re an IT leader who aspires to become a CIO — or if you’re already a CIO and you aspire to keep your job, for that matter — you know full well that you’ve selected an extraordinarily challenging career path. What you may not have figured out quite so successfully is exactly where that path is heading.

One of the most insightful individuals I’ve ever heard address that question is Martha Heller, co-founder of CIO Magazine’s CIO Executive Council, president of executive recruitment firm Heller Search Associates, and author of the new book, “The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership.” One of those contradictions, according to Heller, is that CIOs aren’t empowered to drive IT to its full potential.

I recently spoke at length with Heller, and I mentioned to her that I had earlier spoken with Silicon Valley pundit Vivek Wadhwa, who maintains that the power of CIOs is actually diminishing, and I asked her if she would go that far. She said she could see his point, but it depends on the credibility of the CIO:

As one CIO I spoke with for my book said, “Look, most of the cool stuff in technology is not happening in the IT organization.” So I’m seeing the social mobility/cloud/technology productization of industry, where technology and data are getting much closer to the revenue stream. And that plays out in two ways in terms of the CIO. If the CIO has that credibility and the DNA and the capacity to really be an innovator—and I’m not talking business process innovation, I’m talking business model innovation, not “Let’s do what we do better,” but “Let’s change what we do or what we sell”—those CIOs are being promoted to Chief Innovation and Information Officer. They’re moving into roles like Chief Product Officer. I’m seeing these CIOs even move to new companies as the CTO, over the CIO, where the IT part of technology innovation is just a subset. If you have the gene and the DNA for innovation, your role isn’t being diminished. Your role is being enhanced, because you’re driving innovation. However, if you are seen as an order taker and a service provider, but not a driver, not a high-value executive, your role is being diminished because the technology decision-making that used to be your bailiwick is now happening out in the business, and you’re just trying to catch up with security, integration, and project management.

I asked Heller what the role of the CIO will look like five years from now. She said she thinks we’re going to see a bifurcation of the CIO role:

One thing I think we’re going to see is, for those CIOs who have what I call “the chameleon factor”—that gene for innovation, they can get at the helm of the company and look out with all the other business executives to ask where the company is going, and how technology is going to be a major part of who we are as a company, and how we make money over the next three to five years—that CIO is going to have a major role to play in innovation. Let’s talk about what those CIOs can become. Those CIOs will become heads of product, or Chief Product Development Officer, or Chief Innovation Officer. Those CIOs may even wind up running new businesses that are focused on more technology-based products and revenue. So CIOs who have that chameleon factor, they’re going to wind up evolving, whether it’s their own role that evolves, or they’re promoted into a new role, it doesn’t really matter. But those executives who are CIOs now who are about innovation, they’re going to wind up being over product, being over line of business, or running innovation in their company, because technology is such a critical part of innovation.

Then, there’s the other side: the CIOs who are great at operations and great at keeping a secure, efficient infrastructure—let’s not forget, that stuff still matters. It’s not all about innovation, you’ve got to keep things secure—those people have an exciting opportunity ahead of them, as well, where it’s going to be less about product and business model innovation, and all about shared services: “OK, I’ve got the IT piece down, and in fact we outsource most of it anyway, so it’s really more about vendor management. Now I’m taking on legal, and HR, and audit, and supply chain.” So that other career path is really around taking your operational excellence and taking it beyond IT—that’s a strong career path for CIOs.

The trick for CIOs who are in the role now is threefold: One, who am I, which skills do I have? Two, what does my company value? Is my company about the newest new thing, or is it more of an operational company? And three, who is below me? Am I developing the next set of IT leaders so I can let my role evolve, so I can hand off this IT management stuff to somebody really strong?

Since Heller is an executive recruiter who specializes in placing CIOs, I wanted to get her view on how important it is for a CIO to have an MBA. She said it’s a nice-to-have, but she doesn’t think it’s critical:


If I’m looking at two resumes for a particular job, and everything else is equal, which never happens, of course, I’d go for the MBA. What matters the most is your knowledge of the business. Whether you gain that through an MBA or from work experience, it doesn’t matter. But I will tell you, more important than “knowledge of the business,” understanding how finance works, understanding the management disciplines you learn in an MBA program—far more important than that is the ability of the CIO to leave the IT organization during the day, and go spend time with business leaders. Get in their shoes, go out to lunch with them. As the CIO, you need to be able to answer the questions from the business partners. MBA programs don’t teach you that. That’s about interpersonal skills, about having a natural curiosity, about being able to manage your own operation sufficiently so you can get out of your own way and get out and understand your business. An MBA looks good on paper; it may help you get into the first round of interviews. But to be a successful CIO, it is not about what you learn in an MBA program. It’s about your ability to be an empathetic leader who looks at the company through the eyes of his or her business executive peers.

Finally, I asked Heller what the single most important takeaway is that she wants CIOs to get from her book. Her response:

Know what your innate skill set is. Understand your DNA. And understand how much you’re able to change yourself in order to fit into the CIO role of the future. Are you an innovator? Then go be an innovator. Are you an extrovert? Then be that kind of CIO who’s meeting with external customers. If you’re all about looking up and out, which is all about innovation and vision and product, take that career path—it’s a very exciting career path. If you’re all about looking in and down, which is about security and governance and operations, there’s a career path for you, too. But you really have to know who you are, and what skills you have. And one more thing: If you cannot build relationships with the business, you will go down in flames. And if you cannot embed your own senior leadership team into the business so that they’re building those relationships as well, you will also go down in flames.



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