Who wants to be a CIO?

David Gee offers his take on what it takes to become a chief information officer

For many IT managers becoming a chief information officer is an ambition that may be openly or — more likely — secretly hold.

Being the CIO can be the greatest job in the world and, some times, the worst.

A natural starting point when trying to understand the top role in enterprise IT from the perspective of someone with the ambition of becoming a chief information officer may be to think about one or two CIOs that you have worked with in the past.

That’s okay, but I would encourage you to start observing a broader sample set.The more senior executives that you can learn from the better!

From my own standpoint, I’ve worked with many good executives and also some who are not so great.You will learn from both — traits that are worth emulating and pitfalls that are worth avoiding

So who wants to be a CIO? It may be the highest paying role in IT, but with it comes the ‘A’ from the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed). The buck stops with the CIO for so many things.

The CIO is supposed to take all the ‘heat’ from management — although I have seen some bad ones that just reflect this to their staff.

When you are the CIO you have a job that has incredible variety and you are expected to be broadly experienced, wise and fair. The role is testing on the individual but that is also part of the allure.

For me this is what makes you grow and continue to learn; the level of constant re-invention is the best part of being a CIO. (Later in this series I will talk about the different types of CIO that exist and I’m sure that you will identify with some of these characters.)

The loneliest job in the world?

The CIO role can be ‘lonely’ as you have to make the tough decisions.However, my personal belief is that the best CIOs will involve their teams in nearly all decisions, taking their input and then making a final deliberation based on understanding all points of view.

The decisions are tough, as they never occur in isolation — a simple technology decision has short-, medium- and long-term implications.A decision always has a customer impact; it might be small but it can never be ignored.

There is always pressure to have made a decision ‘yesterday’, so being able to handle time pressure and conflict is all part and parcel of the role.Being totally honest in your dealings is the only way to operate.

As a CIO, your decisions are always being second guessed by others and it is best to be able to explain what and why.

Passing the smell test

Passing that ‘red face’ test is always the acid test for the CIO. Being caught out is never a place that you want to be; it just sets a precedent that your team or a business partner will hold up in future.

The personal brand that you have as a leader is what others say about you, when you are not there to defend yourself. That’s the brand that you carry and it always precedes you into a meeting, including with people who don’t know you.

This brand will be part of your executive ‘presence’. So let’s make sure that it is a brand that is positive and resembles what you actually intended it to be.

CIO = career is over?

Most CIOs have a fairly short tenure; around three to four years. Not surprisingly the tenure of the CEO is around five years and this is a clue to the length of time CIOs tend to spend in organisations. There is much to be said for the CEO wanting his or her CIO to be a certain style and have a compatible approach to their job.

When you get a gig as a CIO, it is always important to work out where the CEO is in his or her own career path in the organisation. I have even asked this question directly in the first few weeks. By doing this you can try to ensure that you are aligned to where that boss is actually going.

When they are in different stages of their own career, both broadly and more specifically within a particular company –this can inform you of what might be their preferred approach. I’ve nearly always had as a boss a CEO who brought me into the organisation with a mandate for change.

Everybody wants a piece of you

The role has evolved over the 18 years that I have performed as CIO across 15 countries.There have been new partners to work with and a constant trend for new technologies to emerge.

To start with the CIO traditionally worked for the chief financial officer and that was an interesting relationship. I’m not saying this is inappropriate but to make it works requires complete honesty and to basically ensure that the CFO understands that his or her own priority list has to be part of the overall business portfolio.

Read more: What kind of CIO do I want to be?

The CIO has to work with the chief marketing officer, the COO, the CRO and the CEO.

Each of these executives will have different requirements and approach. That’s all part of the fun of the role.In the last few years you have had to also work with chief digital officer, chief innovation officer and chief data officer.

Everybody wants a piece of you and I mean that in the both positive and negative sense. It is arguably the greatest job in the world.

(This article is the first part of a series on what it takes to become a CIO.)

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