What makes a good CIO?

What does it take to be a great chief information officer? We talk to Australian CIOs, analysts and human resource managers to find out. The results might surprise you.
Written by Elissa Baxter, Contributor on

feature The days of the chief information officer being a company's head geek are over. Modern CIOs are less likely to know how to cut code and more likely to be able to read a balance sheet.

According to analysts, CIOs and human resource managers, the modern CIO needs to be a business leader and have excellent communication skills across all levels, as well as a thorough knowledge of the technical ins and outs of modern IT.

They also need confidence in putting their vision to the board and the ability to implement strategy. Oh, and just in case that list of skills is not enough, CIOs can also use the "common touch".

A long wish-list of attributes, perhaps. But the critical role of a CIO is increasing in importance within many businesses, and the demands on CIOs are escalating accordingly.

Mary Ann Maxwell, analyst firm Gartner's Asia/Pacific group vice president of executive programs, and ex-CIO herself, sees the modern CIO as a business leader who works in the technology sector.

"CIOs today, and I mean effective ones, are actually business people who happen to be running an organisation to do with technology," says Maxwell.

"In some circumstances the CIO role might still be a geek role. So in smaller organisations the CIO might be honing strategy one day and fixing the CEO's computer the next. But in general there is a stronger emphasis on the business piece of the role."

Paul Newham, newly appointed group executive for technology and operations at St George Bank, agrees with Maxwell's analysis. He says that if he were choosing a CIO, he would make sure they have business leadership skills. "There will always be people with the technical skills in an organisation," says Newham. "I would want an individual I could trust to lead the IT team to that next level in terms of performance and customer satisfaction."

That leader is unlikely to be the stereotypical geek, tucked away in the bowels of the building cutting code. Today's CIO is head of an integral business unit and, over and above technical knowledge, the skill of good communication is paramount to success.

The communication needs to function at all levels; within the IT team, with outsourced providers, with users of the IT services within the organisation and of course, the board.

"I think the connection [with a team] comes from effective communication," says Newham. "I don't think anyone cares whether the CIO can cut code or not. What is important is common purpose and direction. Notwithstanding their level within an IT division, people want their issues and ideas understood, and to have clarity of direction.

"Similarly, it is very easy for IT to live in a silo. It is important that there is an IT connection with the 'grass roots' across the organisation. An understanding of how technology is inhibiting, or could empower is critical," says Newham.

Jetstar's head of human resources, Rohan Garnett, agrees that effective communication is key to a CIO's success, although he phrases it slightly differently.

"'Technology with the common touch' is how I would put it," says Garnett. "It's important that someone who knows the technology can also explain it to those who don't. This is a defining skill and characteristic of a successful CIO.

"It is one thing to understand the technology and its application, another to explain it at every level from executive management committee to line management and the front line. That's the thrust and the key to it."

Art or science?
But communicating with high-level executives is an art and a skill unto itself, according to Gartner's Maxwell. Working out exactly what attributes of the technology to discuss with the board, as well as the level of detail to go into, can be critical to a CIO's ability to get their agenda moving.

"A lot of CIOs think their opportunity to talk to board is an opportunity to educate board about IT. But they [the board] don't care about the technology. They want to know three things: what do I need to invest and where, what are the risks of that investment and what is the business value of it?" says Maxwell.

"CIOs have to be able to communicate with their peers to be confident that their solutions have a business focus and not a technology focus."

Once a CIO has convinced the board that their strategy is worth investing in, the next step is to implement that strategy across an organisation. Which means that modern CIOs also need to be skilled and effective agents for change.

I don't think anyone cares whether the CIO can cut code or not. What is important is common purpose and direction.

St George Bank's Paul Newham

"Given the fact that at the end of the day the ultimate purpose of technology is to improve business processes, CIOs need to understand how to implement change and encourage others to embrace it," says Maxwell, who adds that being an effective change agent is not just about explaining the benefits of a new system or process. An effective leader also needs to be able to acknowledge the negative impacts of change and help people to embrace that change.

"An effective change agent is able to recognise that people will see the negative, they need to respond to the negative because if you ignore it then people will think you're not being honest with them. A change agent gets people behind the change," she says.

For all the business nous and interpersonal skills the modern CIO might posses, Jetstar's Garnet believes that it is still vital to have an up-to-date understanding of the technology in the context of the business it is working in.

"Our CIO needs to understand how technology can work effectively within the complex nature of commercial aviation," explains Garnett. "It is also important to understand that what is put in place one day is not universal and, like aircraft, will ultimately be redundant one day. Technology lead times to replacement are long but applications are developed quickly."

Because those replacement lead times are so long, a deep understanding of the business as well as the effectiveness of the technology will be critical to making the right IT choices.

"I think that up-to-date technical knowledge is critical," says Garnett. "Because the CIO needs to understand what advances can bring system-wide improvements to the operating environment. It can also help keep companies away from 'techno fads' and thereby focus on what is important."

Finding out exactly what is important for the CIO role is precisely the problem Gartner's Maxwell says every CIO should be considering.

"CIOs need to ask themselves 'what question is IT answering within the organisation?'" says Maxwell. "For many CIOs that question is: 'How can we improve the way we work at speed and with scale?'"

And the number one personality trait for a successful CIO?

According to Maxwell it's not sensitivity to criticism.

"A bit of a thick skin is certainly an advantage for a CIO," says Maxwell. "If you're the sort of person who needs a lot of affirmation then you've picked the wrong profession. IT is not a world of promises, it's a world of actual delivery. There are as many different strategies as there are hours in the day, but it's not who has the best strategy, it's who executes it."

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