The Changing Face of the CIO

The profile of the Chief Information Officer is changing. We’ve moved beyond the days when technical experience was the predominant qualification for the job. Now the CIO must be many things to many people, and one of the most important attributes he or she must bring to the job is leadership. Our interviews with more than 340 CIOs in North America and Europe indicate that leadership is about forming a view and rallying the organization around that vision to achieve results that are exceptional.

How is leadership demonstrated by the CIO? First and foremost, the CIO must be a very strong communicator, both orally and in print. When an executive recruitment firm, such as ours at Korn/Ferry, looks at CIO candidates, it discerns how well they communicate at different levels: with the CEO, peers, and subordinates.

The successful CIO must be able to speak in plain language, understanding that even the words themselves have changed. A management that once spoke of feedback loops, control systems, compliance and measurement devices now uses such words as empower-ment, alliances, shared values and consensus. Today’s CIO must use multiple styles to communicate ideas and motivate people, articulating a vision for the IS group and its peers in other company functions.

Those who have obtained the best positions in our highest level searches not only understand how to be a good communicator but also know when to listen. Over and over, we are told that the best CIOs listen to their peers in finance, human resources, marketing and other departments. As CIOs rise ever higher on the organization chart, their inter-personal skills, a major function of leadership skills, must come to the forefront. Words that may not be part of the previous CIO vocabulary – such as empathy, openness, and candor – are often used to describe these successful CIO candidates. These individuals make their peers into confidants, promoting joint ownership of projects and communicating ideas and initiatives across the organization.


What are the most important activities for CIOs to focus on if they wish to advance their career and expand their responsibilities? And what are the critical success factors for advancement, apart from leadership, in the near future?

For the CIO to make a mark in the new, more people-oriented organizational universe, he or she must also be a technology guru, negotiator, project manager, fire-fighter and customer service representative. And let’s not forget the ability to be responsive to business needs, while demonstrating good judgement and knowledge in selecting IT solutions that meet strategic goals.

Clearly, the ability to understand and effectively manage technology is of critical importance to the job, yet when selecting a CIO, Boards of Directors and CEOs almost always select the person who is able to readily articulate the technology vision. So despite the absolute need for technological competence, the selection process still puts a premium on communications skills. CEOs want today’s CIOs to be enablers, with business acumen and presence in the boardroom, and the ability to manage and evangelize change, based on maintaining competi-tive advantage and leveraging the customer base.

The CEO seeks a partner in the CIO – one who will share the role of “creative technology generalist”. CEOs see themselves as being multi-dimensional in their capabilities and they expect the CIO to exhibit similar flexibility as well. As a result, CIOs looking to advance their careers should demonstrate an ability to work with CEOs in the following four areas:

Cultural change initiatives and implementation

Competitive strategy development

Business and financial strategy and decision-making

Coaching the executive team on leveraging knowledge


Executive recruiters are often asked how a candidate can improve his or her chances to be considered for the best new positions. If what you’ve accomplished so far has not brought you to our attention, then it is difficult to engage in any immediate activity that will change that picture. Recruiters tend to keep in touch with candidates that interest them, so cer-tainly don’t fail to take a call from a recruiter, even if that person is soliciting your advice on other candidates. But also start to study where there is movement in certain industries; it may help you sharpen up your own profile.

Here’s a little inside information that may be helpful. In a Korn/Ferry survey, we asked “What industries are most likely to promote internal candidates to the top IS position?” Manufacturing had the lead at better than 40%, while financial services was closer to 30%. We also asked, “What industries are most likely to look for CIOs and VP IS candidates outside the company?” Here, the trade, service, and utilities industry sectors take the lead. Those industries would therefore be worth investigating for CIOs seeking career enhancement.

Successful career management truly isn’t who you know; it remains a function of what you know. Today, the ability to present that knowledge has become an essential part of the mix, and with good reason – if you can’t communicate effectively, how will you motivate others and make your IT vision a reality?

Gary W. Huggins is Managing Director of the Toronto Office of executive search consulting firm Korn/Ferry International.