'Surround yourself with people smarter than you are': CIOs share their tips on making it to the top

Making it to the top in IT is about more than knowing one end of a server from the other. Tech chiefs on how to work effectively and make a difference.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Technology professionals looking to climb the IT leadership ladder will need to hone specific skills and qualities.

What is the one tip CIOs would give to other executives who are looking to make it to the top?

1. Take an open approach to your aims and objectives

Unlike her peers, National Trust CIO Sarah Flannigan did not work her way up the technology profession ladder before hitting the CIO role. Flannigan was parachuted into the Trust in April 2010, with her previous executive positions centring on marketing and operations.

Flannigan's experiences lead her to suggest too much attention is directed towards the benefits that can accrue from softer management tactics, like networking with peers and attending supplier-sponsored events. She even questions the true value of personal development courses and programmes.

"They have a place but the softer stuff shouldn't dominate your attention," says Flannigan. "Focus on delivering and you'll get recognised for your success. Always state to your line manager what you are going to do, how long it will take and what the long-term results will be. Be clear in advance."

Flannigan says an open approach to aims and objectives allows senior executives to feel more confident when shouting about their achievements. "Don't deliver quietly - be explicit, track your progress and demonstrate your success," she says.

2. Make sure your individual character suits business need

Sarah Leslie, CIO at Iglo Foods Group, joined the IT industry through a graduate training programme twenty-five years ago.

"It was a fantastic grounding," she says. "Programming and development were still paramount when I joined IT. I went through the full cycle of training, from getting requirements and role playing, through to solution design, programming, testing and development."

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Leslie says IT graduates on a training programme with a big firm were expected to apply what they learnt in the technology department across other areas of the business.

Twenty years later and the approach has changed considerably. Modern IT is more about picking solutions, rather than creating systems, says Leslie before suggesting that attainment - just as it has ever been - is closely related to character.

"Success depends on the aptitude of the individual and the most important thing to learn is the principle of how to relate the benefits of IT to specific business requirements," she says.

3. Never give up learning and educate your team

Mike Williams is software and IT director at water management specialist i2O, a firm that creates innovative solutions to the challenge of leakage in global water distribution systems. He is also an experienced agile leadership coach.

His experiences lead him to conclude that talented IT professionals can always hone their craft."Never give up learning and try and surround yourself with people who are better than you," he says, suggesting executives are sometimes reticent to take on great people for fear of being outdone. "Recruit great people who will inspire you to work harder and do more."

Williams says the creation of an inspiring work culture is also crucial for IT leaders looking to develop an atmosphere that will produce great results. He advises IT leaders who are climbing the ladder to concentrate on decision making and the use of trusted lieutenants in the decision making process.

"A lot of the talk about agility is simply lip service," he says. "Is your business organised around a dynamic community or a traditional command-and-control hierarchy? Try and educate your teams to become more agile in terms of the way that they work. Use iteration as a natural way to work and always focus on business outcomes."

4. Embed yourself within the business to offer great guidance

Jonathan Everitt, data architect at Camelot Group, says he focuses on building relationships with people who have access to innovation and who can add value to the business. "You can no longer simply think about your requirements as a technology professional in terms of IT," he says.

"Technology, in the digital era, needs to be agile. The rest of the business has been empowered through the cloud to install its own software-as-a-service. The business is running its own IT change programmes. For me, a lot of modern IT is about proving the value to the business of great integration and risk management."

Everitt says line-of-business executives are best placed to know which IT systems and services will prove most valuable in their parts of the organisation. The rise of shadow IT means CIOs need to guide, rather than simply control IT.

"The business needs to come up with propositions, and the IT department needs to assess the risks, think about existing capabilities and marry threat with opportunity," says Everitt. "I embed myself within the business. I sit with the people who make operational decisions. I become part of their strategic thinking; not to put the breaks on a project, but to offer the right kind of guidance."

5. Be transaction-led, rather than a simple supplier of services

Omid Shiraji, CIO at Working Links, describes himself as a next-generation CIO. He is a passionate advocate for a new type of IT leadership where the technology department is an integral part of the business, just like the HR, finance or sales organisations.

"Next-generation CIOs must be customer-focused, rather than being supplier-led," says Shiraji, who says new IT graduates must find the right type of mentors. The problem, he says, is that technology chiefs who rely on old-school thinking are guiding too many IT professionals.

"I went to a conference a couple of years and listened to the types of conversations that people have. By and large, those conversation were very similar and tended to focus on the same sorts of things, such as cost, managing service and delivering technology," says Shiraji."People tended to think of there being a split between business and IT, where the technology department is simply a supplier of services to the rest of the organisation. This false arrangement frustrates me. If your conversations are transaction-led, you will be able to deliver the true value of IT to the rest of the business."

Further reading on CIOs

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