So you want to be a CIO

An IT director at a small home health care organization recently asked me about how best to achieve his goal of becoming a CIO. The organization was “getting over a downsizing,” and he was planning on leaving to pursue his career.

I’ve been giving the question some thought, and here’s how I see it.

There is no formula for becoming a CIO. To land the job, four things must happen. There has to be opportunity (that is, an open position), you must be in the candidate pool, you must distinguish yourself from other candidates, and you must be willing to take the job.

There isn’t much you can do to create opportunities, nor can you affect their timing, so you should avoid the temptation to try. You don’t want a reputation as an opportunist, which would be virtually guaranteed to stall your career growth. As hard as it can be, you must be patient.

But while you’re waiting, prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunities. Decision-makers are typically looking for certain personal behaviours and experiences as they fill open positions. You can practice those behaviours and pursue jobs that create the experience that will help you to stand out from the crowd. The following thoughts may help steer you toward your goal.

Become an outstanding leader. It all starts here. There’s a big difference between management and leadership. There are a lot of really smart, highly technical managers out of work right now. But for a strong leader with an IT background — particularly with business experience — opportunity not only knocks on the door, it almost rips the hinges off.

How do you become one? You can’t become a leader by reading this article or a book on leadership. You have to live it. Establish a set of principles to guide you through tough decisions, and develop the courage to make those decisions and accept the consequences. Enhance your credibility by developing a track record of making and meeting commitments.

Teams voluntarily follow leaders because of their innate authority, not their formal authority, so figure out how to connect with your team on an emotional level. Be willing to tackle tough problems, make hard calls and accept stretch goals. You and your teams will occasionally fail, so be willing to accept responsibility, recover and learn from your mistakes.

Be aware that as a leader, you are onstage. Your teams will learn how to behave from your example, particularly during tough times. You set the tone for your organization’s culture and values, so make sure you model the behaviours you want to see in your people.

Think of yourself as a business person. Good CIOs don’t run technology shops; they run businesses. The best serve as key members of the executive team running their firm’s core business. To be credible within the IT group, you must have a good grasp of technology, and you will be most effective if you have actually done some IT jobs.

The same is true with the business community. If you don’t have a business background, going back to school for an MBA will help, but running with the business units will be at least as valuable. Learn their language. Understand their strategies. Figure out what they are worried about and where they see opportunity, then develop ways to use technology to help them out.

Get intimate with the numbers. The language of business is money, and if you don’t understand how money is made and spent in your company, you won’t make it to the CIO level. To effectively communicate with your CEO, board of directors, executive committee and chief financial officer, you must know what drives your company’s costs and how to manage them. As a service provider within your organization, in order to be successful, you’ll need to understand not only the IT budget, but also every business unit’s budget.

Finally, remember the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” Becoming a CIO can be an extremely rewarding opportunity for the person who is ready. But someone who hasn’t prepared himself can feel like a dog who finally catches that truck he’s been chasing — only to get run over by it. Do all you can to get ready for the role, and then enjoy. I can promise you it won’t be boring. Good luck.

Parker is executive vice-president and CIO at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. You can contact him at

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