Becoming an Enterprise CIO

I’m in a Pensive Mood …

Working as an Enterprise Architect – I’m beginning to question my aspirations of becoming a CIO.

I’ve been affected by some of the recent poor experiences I’ve had where CIO was too passive and focussed on “short-termism”.

Is the role of the CIO dead or alive? Does the CIO still have an effective role/function in the age of Enterprise 2.0?

A decade ago CIOs were undervalued, overworked, under pressure and frustrated. They knew they could be leading their firms to new ways of doing business enabled by IT, but no-one would listen. Cynics of the time were fond of suggesting that CIO stood for “Career Is Over”.

My curiosity led me to carry out some research which opened my eyes and inspired me again.

Studies conducted by London Business School and CIO Development, BCS Elite, Certus and Computer Weekly confirm that the CIO is  indeed important. The CIO now enjoys a role and status that his peers from ten years ago would not recognise.

Navigating into the Enterprise CIO Position

Personal Characteristics

Successful CIOs have the same personal strengths we find in other senior executives. The role can accommodate the full range of leadership styles from extrovert, charismatic through to the gentler style of “people persons.”

When CIOs were asked as a group to list their most important personal characteristics these are the top four:

1. Good project manager or change manager

One of the most impressive CIOs I have worked with over the last 10 years is nearing retirement. When I asked him what he put his success down to he thought for a minute and told me “I am a good project manager who happens to understand IT.” CIOs are often among the best change managers in the organisation for this very reason.

2. Excellent communicator

Everyone by now must surely have got the message that if you talk like a plumber you will be treated like a plumber – but the truth is, relating IT to business in a compelling and engaging way, without using jargon, is difficult. This can be a very big deal to your CEO and executive colleagues so you must not fall into the trap. If all anyone at senior levels wants to talk to you about is IT you might be making this mistake. Most good CIOs claim to be better at the one-to-one but they are also highly competent in groups, and they are able to “sell” their vision both to their executive colleagues who will endorse it and to their teams who will deliver it.

3. Good leadership

Surely one of the most talked about and least understood executive issues – “leadership” – exercises and stretches CIOs a good deal.

Here are my top three myths of IT leadership:

  • Leaders are born, not made; it isn’t something you can learn.
  • The British are not generally good at leadership.
  • IT professionals tend to be introverted and task oriented. They do not make good leaders.

All these, and possibly other favourites you may hold dear, are hopeless generalisations that fly in the face of the evidence.

There are key distinctions between being a good leader and a good manager. Managers manage process and leaders lead people. This shows up most clearly in times of change and change is often, perhaps always what being a CIO is all about.

CIOs feel the strain of leadership and yet relatively few of them have taken advantage of formal leadership development. They should, it can make a big difference not only to their personal performance but to the team they are leading as well.

4. Stamina and Determination

It is interesting that this should come up as a top four personal characteristic – something that CIOs share with CEOs. There is a doggedness about good CIOs. They tend to be driven by some vision, or inner need to find a better way – often expressed as a need “to make a difference.” However they express it, it is a deep drive to improve things and they do not give up easily.

Critical Success Factors (CSFs)

Winning the trust of senior colleagues and using it as a basis for building relationships is essential because IT builds dependencies more quickly than other functions. Missed deadlines, undelivered functionality, cost overruns are all deeply disturbing to your executive colleagues and it is not enough to explain away the problems – they know that IT is tough to manage, they just expect you to buffer them from that.

A top class IT management team is essential and CIOs have to create the environment for talent to be developed and flourish. Try asking yourself the question: “Why would anyone choose to work here?” If you cannot immediately come up with a compelling answer ask yourself what you need to do about it.

A good and trusting relationship with the CEO is essential, and a trend to switch CIO reporting to the CEO was evident in the 90s but there are downsides to this. For one, he or she may be unwilling to get into some of the detail the CIO may want to share from time to time. But perhaps the most significant problem a direct reporting line can cause is it can breed fear and mistrust in your executive colleagues and this is self- defeating.

Last on my list of key factors for success is so obvious I nearly missed it. You must, of course, have the trust and support of your own team – and you shouldn’t take this for granted. There are many ways to inspire loyalty and to engender excitement and energy. You need to find your way – learn the techniques but be your own person. If you are open and honest with your team and you encourage them to be the same you will be creating a culture that will suit the best on your team and they will support the rest.


So, given that the CIO is such a tough, lonely and perhaps unappreciated role why are IT executives queuing up to become CIOs?

First, if you are going to be anything other than a skilled technician (and plenty of people in IT prefer to remain exactly that) you might as well try to get to the top. The middle management of any discipline is an uncomfortable place and the true target of the Dilbert cartoons.

The higher up the hierarchy you go the more you get to influence what actually happens and at the top you can have so much influence it can be scary. One CIO recently confessed to me that he was elated to get the job after a major merger but terrified of what he had taken on. “At the beginning there was just me, the CIO – everything else had to be created”.

If that sounds a little like the beginning of the world then I guess that is what it felt like. Executives of all disciplines will tell you that to be a significant part of the creative process, to make a real difference, is probably their major source of job satisfaction.

A curious thing about being a CIO is that so few people have done it before and the rules are being constantly re-written. This satisfies a particular type of executive, those who revel in having to work out how and whether it can be done. This is a peculiar kind of intellectual risk-taking, similar to entrepreneurialism but without the terminal downside: until recently that is. With CIO tenures shortening all the time the post world might be different again. One thing is certain – the top IT executive job in any organisation is likely to get more not less demanding, and it is that that gets some people out of bed in the morning.

But perhaps the biggest motivator of all for CIOs is that they are doing the most important and exciting work that an IT career can offer, and all of us in IT work will know that is saying a lot. A good CIO, in a moving organisation will get a daily fix of leadership and change, technology and relationships. He or she will be frequently under-fire but will have the protection and support of those few in the organisation who have seen the future and want it created. They cannot do it without the CIO.


To make the transition to top CIO, three skill sets are vital:

  1. business know-how,
  2. technological confidence, and
  3. high-order behavioural skills.

The last includes the ability to manage and facilitate change, personal communication skills, leadership, teamwork and the ability to influence others.

Although most organisations still haven’t got the message, an effective CIO operating at the top of the company is second only to the CEO in capacity to influence across a broad range of processes and functions, and is uniquely placed to influence the organisation’s future.


  1. Good project manager or change manager
  2. Excellent communicator with individuals and groups
  3. Provides willing and effective leadership
  4. Plenty of stamina and dogged determination


  1. Win the trust of executive colleagues by keeping promises
  2. Develop people and really empower your teams
  3. Develop and maintain a good relationship with a committed board level sponsor
  4. Take the lead on important IT initiatives
  5. Give priority to maintaining the trust and support of your team.

Closing Comments

I breathe a sigh … and decide to continue towards achieving my aspiration. I want to become a CIO or a Cxx level director who really can make a difference to an organisation.

The best CIOs usually have a strong leadership profile. They weren’t born that way but like body-builders they have developed their leadership muscles until they are strong and fit for purpose.

My next step?

Focus on “leadership training” activities and pursue an Executive MBA (EMBA) to transform me from an accidental leader into a deliberate, practising one.

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