What companies really want when hiring a CIO

Specific technology skills are great, but the best CIOs are proven leaders, excellent managers and master communicators.

Sharon Florentine May 28th 2018

What are companies looking for when hiring a CIO? The answer varies depending on the organization and industry, but companies tend to look for certain common skills and experience when hiring for the role — at least according to CIO job postings.

Indeed.com analyzed jobs postings for chief information officers between April 2017 and March 2018 and found 10 sought-after skills in almost every posting. This mix of hard and soft skills provides a good guideline for aspiring IT executives as to what hiring companies are looking for in their next CIO.

“CIOs have been tasked with developing the strategies and initiatives needed to successfully implement the digital transformation within their organizations,” says Paul Wolfe, senior vice president and head of global human resources at Indeed.com. “It comes as no surprise that we are seeing a mixture of leadership, business and technology skills being reflected in the job postings for the role on Indeed.”

But while Indeed’s list of skills gives an idea of the kinds of things companies look for in a CIO, the list should be taken with a grain of salt, says Mark Weatherbee, vice president of IT at Goodwill Industries Northern New England.

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“A CIO does not need to be an expert in all of [these] areas,” Weatherbee says. In fact, many of the most important skills necessary for excellence in a CIO role aren’t even on the list, he says. “I feel CIOs need to build teams of experts smarter than themselves; they are almost a coach for their IT team. They need to advocate for their customers and their own teams, develop strong relationships with their peers, understand their organization’s business objectives and have good business acumen,” he says. If a CIO is new, they should work on building trust within their organization, too.

Following is a look at what companies really want in a CIO — beyond what job postings often include.

The truth about technical skills

Indeed’s list of CIO skills suggests a premium is placed on a select set of vendor-specific technologies, but how technical do you really need to be to land an IT executive position? Or more importantly, how essential are technical skills when it comes to succeeding as a CIO?

If software development teams are working with vendor-specific technologies, such as SharePoint or SAP, then CIOs should have a grasp on how those technologies are integrated within the larger IT infrastructure, Weatherbee says. The same goes with a hypervisor like VMware, as all organizations are virtualized to some extent. But they do not need to know the nuts and bolts of every part of a vendor-specific technology to be effective leaders. 

“It’s more about knowing how to hire the right talent to work with those technologies,” he says. “When a CIO takes a new job, they inherit many enterprise systems — SAP, Oracle, UltiPro — and they need to hire the right, skilled people to manage those systems.”

That’s really the key, Weatherbee says, with enterprise systems, including data warehousing and business intelligence: It’s most important to know how and when to delegate to specialists using leadership, management and communication skills.

“Many job descriptions for CIOs are poorly written and reference specific technology way too often,” he says. “A CIO position should be about understanding the business, leading, managing and ensuring that staff has the appropriate technical expertise and then embedding those folks in each separate business unit” depending on where their skills lie, he says.

Of course, a lot depends on the size of the organization, says Ann Dunkin, CIO of County of Santa Clara, California, and formerly CIO of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Obama administration. Smaller organizations with limited IT departments and software development teams necessitate a CIO being more hands-on, she says.

“If you’re in a smaller organization, then, yes, technical skills are something you need to have a solid understanding of,” she says. “And in general, you do need to have an understanding of the principles and processes for some things like agile or project management. But in a large organization like mine, where I have a huge team of IT people — not so much.”

Weatherbee agrees. “Project management should be a core competency but, even more importantly, CIOs need to build teams with good project management skills.  Having dedicated project managers is even better,” he says. The same goes for agile. While CIOs often lead teams of developers and thus must have a general understanding of agile and software development practices, the minutia of these principles and frameworks should be handled by those on the teams themselves, he adds.

Still, organizations sometimes make the mistake of hiring a technical expert as a CIO instead of focusing on what makes someone a great leader, Dunkin says. Even in a small organization where a CIO is involved in every decision, it’s not necessary to know “every gory detail,” says Dunkin.

“It’s all about the soft skills when you get to the CIO level, but you also have to have enough tech understanding not to get snowed. You need to understand the fundamentals of these technologies, but not the nitty gritty of them,” Dunkin says.

Leadership skills: The true differentiator

So, what skills should you hone in pursuit of a CIO role, if not those identified by Indeed? Dunkin says when hiring, her No. 1 priority is leadership skills, followed by strong management skills.

“For me, that means someone who can win the hearts and minds of the people who work for them. Who can attract and retain people with a vision, through coaching, through solid support,” Dunkin says. “That’s the leadership piece; they must also have good management skills so they can deliver on the vision and the mission and understand the domain well enough to have the staff do the right jobs the right way. It’s all about enabling the people that work for you — you set the strategic direction, and then they execute on that.”

For that reason, budgeting and recruiting — two skills identified by Indeed in its list of common CIO skills — are, in fact, must-have skills for any CIO, Weatherbee says.

“Budget planning — both operational and capital — are needed, and careful overview of expenses is imperative,” he says. “Recruiting skills are also a must, as CIOs need to build strong teams. Strong teams create the success — the CIO just helps orchestrate some of that success.”

Jo Abernathy, CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, agrees. Finding leaders who report to the CIO who have domain- and discipline-specific experience is more important than a CIO themselves who can demonstrate those skills; the CIO role should be operating at a higher level and be more nuanced and strategy-focused, Abernathy says.

“You have to be able to convey a compelling story about your company and your technology organization to recruit and retain talent. You have to have the ability to motivate and inspire people; along with this comes the ability to get folks ‘rowing in the same direction’ when they disagree. Folks need to be heard, but, at the end of the day, they need someone who’s not afraid to explain the rationale, obtain commitment, elicit a ‘find a way’ attitude among key players, and make the tough call,” she says.

Coaching and mentoring is another key capability of successful CIOs, says Abernathy. That includes developing and delivering constant feedback to your teams to ensure they align with the mission and values of the brand you’re building. If they don’t, she says, you can invite them to leave.

While this may seem harsh, a CIO’s credibility and their ability to make and justify hard decisions is another key to success, Abernathy says.

“Talk straight; be honest. Don’t play games. Listen, show humility, but get comfortable dealing with conflict,” she says. “These skills will enable you to influence and negotiate, which, at the most senior levels, is absolutely essential to the job.”

The power of delegation and communication

Given the scope of the typical CIO’s responsibilities, you also have to know what you have to control versus what you don’t, Abernathy says. Here, delegation is a key skill. “Pick your battles, empower and enable your business units to be as independent as possible,” she says.

As a CIO, you will have to hone the ability to filter through tons of information, figure out what really matters and execute on that, Abernathy says. “CIOs are inundated with so much information about their company’s strategy and initiatives, emerging technologies, politics and egos, vendor values and games. You have to be able to assess, filter, decide and move on,” she says. “You have to fine-tune the ability to juggle lots of things and keep up with the really important ones, which can be tricky. You want to be seen as engaged, but not a micromanager.”

To strike that balance, communication skills are essential. As a CIO, you need to communicate strongly and effectively at all levels, Abernathy says, and be able to verbalize your value to the greater organization. “Communications need to cover as many aspects of IT as possible in a strong way: strategy, financials, talent strategy, roadmaps and plans, continuous improvement, etc. IT tends to be pretty bad at marketing their services and accomplishments. Let the organization know what you do and what you accomplish; seek input as to what they value from you as well as what’s missing,” she says.

A passion for staying current on new technologies can help deliver value, too, especially with the breakneck pace of change in technology today, she says. To help tackle this, Abernathy says she hired a CTO who has the primary responsibility for this task.

“He helps me and the other leaders in my organization stay current, and filter the ‘hype’ from the ‘high potential’ pile of new technologies coming at us. It’s important to hold back some resources for exploring new technologies [internally],” she says. “The last thing you want is to be the implementer for something your business partner found via an outside consultant, because that diminishes your value and can position you as a roadblock if you disagree with the choice but weren’t involved in guiding the evaluation process.”

The CIO role is incredibly varied, but overall, strong leadership, communication, conflict negotiation, an ability to delegate and a passion for new technologies are key to success in the role.