Five skills you need to be CIO

As businesses increasingly look towards technology to deliver not only cost efficiencies but also competitive advantage, growth and new customer experiences, the role of the CIO becomes more critical.

With technology at the heart of most organizations today the role of the CIO has never been more important. But, as businesses increasingly look towards technology to deliver not only cost efficiencies but also competitive advantage, growth and new customer experiences, what are the key skills a top CIO needs?

Here, picks five skills CIO need to excel:

For all the hard experience and qualifications CIOs have in their armory it is the soft skills that are often the hardest to gain--most notably the art of good communication. This means the ability to communicate and influence at all levels--spouting techno-babble in the boardroom is unlikely to endear a CIO to fellow executives.

Peter Breen, partner at global executive headhunter firm Heidrick & Struggles, says: "It's depressing how many IT people bore the pants off their CEOs by talking about technology."'s CIO Jury agrees--Steve Gediking, head of IT at the Independent Police Complaints Commission, says: "We are our own worst enemies because we don't as a group talk the language of business. Three out of four IT directors will talk techie to their board."

The big criticism often leveled at the CIO profession is a lack of business understanding and commercial awareness. In a CIO Visions video interview Reuters CIO David Lister warned that IT chiefs increasingly need to focus on how they can help their businesses grow--and not just look at cutting costs and being more efficient. He says: "The difference between the traditional IT director and the CIO focus is that CIOs should be focused on growing, innovating, enabling, helping the business exploit opportunities as they come forward. To do that you have to be very focused, not on the IT agenda but the business agenda--making sure that the business strategies and plans are both fully informed by the potential of IT."

This also means knowing and understanding the customer and being able to influence them through the effective use of technology--a reason why retail industry CIOs are so highly regarded.

But it is also about being strategic--taking that helicopter view but with the ability to drill down where necessary.

While keeping costs down and the IT ship steady are a given for any CIO it is vision that differentiates him or her from a more traditional IT director. Innovation, creativity, flair and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Steve Prentice, VP and distinguished analyst at Gartner, speaking at the analyst's annual Symposium in San Francisco earlier this year, said the IT industry is missing visionaries who can challenge conventional wisdom.

He said: "CEOs are looking for new ideas and many just don't see them coming from the IT department--too many of whom are waiting for someone else to make the first move. Inside too many enterprises there are too many people waiting--waiting to be spoon-fed a prepackaged solution for how to apply technology to their specific problem."

Essentially a good CIO is bold and takes risks--both in their decision-making and with their own career. They are ambitious and are prepared to put their head above the parapet, driven by a restlessness that pushes them outside their comfort zone.

Strong leadership is one of the key attributes of the very best CIOs--and this means leadership as opposed to simply good management. Good leaders inspire and motivate their teams and drive them to achieve remarkable things. A strong leader is also a more credible and effective operator in the boardroom and is respected among their executive peers. Leadership is not something that comes naturally for many who rise through the traditional IT ranks, and it is more than just having charisma and presence, but Brinley Platts, CIO career development coach, says leadership is something that can be acquired. "Some people take naturally to leadership but it is definitely a set of learned skills. They need some clarity in the role and mission they have taken on, and that then gives them an edge."

The flip-side to being commercially aware and in tune with business strategy is the all-important domain knowledge. A look at the profiles of the top 50 UK CIOs backs that up, with a significant number having worked their way up through the 'grand tour of IT' after graduating with computer sciences or mathematics degrees.

Being a database or Unix programming expert on its own won't get you to the top of the tree, of course, but a good CIO must have a practical understanding of technology fundamentals in order to make the right strategic calls about the deployment and exploitation of IT.