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The six skills, habits and traits of successful CIOs

The six skills, habits and traits of successful CIOs

The world of technology changes at a blinding pace, which means a CIO has to regularly adopt new skills. So what does it take to compete and be a successful CIO at a time when having a variety of skills is more important than ever before.

Most people say they like to be at the top of the heap of the IT management food chain, but with the CIO title comes great responsibility, accountability and pressure.

The world of technology changes at a blinding pace, which means a CIO has to regularly adopt new skills. Whether it's mastering cloud computing, big data or IT outsourcing, it seems like there is never a break from learning. And as other departments get involved in technology decisions, budgets are not always under the control of the IT department.

So what does it take to compete and be a successful CIO at a time when having a variety of skills is more important than ever before. To find out, we turned to our colleagues at the CIO Executive Council. Its Ones to Watch Awards program is designed to recognize future IT leaders. A panel of veteran CIO serves as the judges.

Candidates are nominated by their managers and judged on how well they have implemented and articulated major problems and solutions within their organisations in the last year. The results are great examples of the kind of skills it takes to succeed today in the upper echelon of any organisation.

Using data from the Ones to Watch evaluation process as well as interviews with career strategist, Donald Burns and Arizona State University CIO Gordon Wishon, CIO.com has put together a list of traits and skills commonly associated with today's successful CIOs. If having a "chief" in your title is your long-term goal, then a mastery of the following skills and a strong desire are what's needed to get you there.

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1. IT touches Everything

Regardless of your industry, chances are every department at your company relies on IT for something--phones, emails, computers, newsletters, content management systems and the list goes on.

"Every corner of every line of business has a need for some sort of IT support or service. That fact is a reflection of the value of what technology can do to improve performance, drive efficiency, save costs and ultimately to become more effective," says Wishon.

IT downtime can bring a company to its knees. Imagine a day where you can't send or receive email or you can't update a product or event web page with important new information. "If anything goes wrong with IT, you can't work. You might as well go home. If you're working from home and IT gets in your way, you might as well take the day off. For a business, limited IT is like limiting the oxygen supply - very quickly, people get scared, distracted and angry," says Burns.

2. CIOs are always learning and growing

To be successful at any level of IT you must always be learning. If you don't, you are left behind. This is even truer for senior management personnel.

"The top leadership expects the CIO to stay ahead of trends, and that type of info is not always available in a course or training program. In other words, you must make up your own course, look around you and be aware of emerging trends," says Burns.

"A CIO who isn't aware of what's going on around him won't be a CIO very long," says Wishon. He adds that people in the IT field are a part of the most actively changing and volatile field, outside of healthcare. A college degree is the beginning of the journey; companies need CIOs who can see over the horizon to recognize emerging technologies and how they can be applied to business objectives.

3. CIOs are masters of network and relationship building

"Establishing and maintaining your network is essential and, at times, critical," says Wishon. Along with a CIO's great networking and relationship-building skills, they also have to be able to handle criticism.

The CIO, among his many responsibilities, works with internal groups--including developers, support techs, senior management, database administrator, project managers and every department head--and external vendors. Being able to communicate, articulate and influence people is a necessary skill. To make it as a CIO, Wishon says. "You've got to have thick skin and courage of your convictions."

Many times CIOs are walking around with a "bulls-eye" on their backs. When something technical goes wrong--whether it's the CIO's fault or not- it's important that people like you or, at the very least, have no reason to "get even" with you when something bad happens.

"I helped somebody transition to a new company as CIO. The former CIO was technically astute and almost indispensable, but apparently he had a loud, overbearing and borderline obnoxious personality that finally caught up with him. Here today, gone tomorrow," says Burns.

As a CIO, you'll likely be a part of many teams and working well within them is paramount to your success. "Listening to and understanding the direction that has been established by those who are in a position to make those decisions and the ability to work together with executive management are key skills, says Wishon.

4. Have a solid knowledge of your business and industry

"If you focus specifically on the technology without knowing what the business objectives are, you're not going to be in the best position to know how best to leverage technology. You really need to understand the business problem the company is trying to solve to able to recommend how the technology can be leveraged," Wishon says.

Knowing the ins and outs of all your hardware and software is where the job starts-- what separates the leaders from the followers here is knowing well what your company's business is and all the details that surround that business.

Leveraging your knowledge of technology to meet the needs of the business is the name of the game and the personnel who can consistently do that will rise to the top. "When you spot a trend, it's tempting to jump on the tech bandwagon. This is the natural instinct of good technical people. The successful CIO will first build a compelling business case before recommending an investment in latest-and-greatest technology," says Burns.

5. The ability to market ideas and influence people

A CIO has to be effective at getting people onboard with his vision and solutions. CIOs need to be able to articulate the value proposition of any given project and align various people, departments and vendors around a common goal.

"The ability to establish and communicate the value and contributions that the IT organisation is making or could make is a critical characteristic," says Wishon.

6. CIOs excel at recognising and growing talent

One of the most important skills a CIO can have, according to Wishon, is the ability to recognise, secure and retain good people. It's impossible for a CIO to know and understand everything there is within the range and scope of technology.

Wishon says there is one rule that he always tries to follow throughout the hiring process. "One has to be able to rely upon good people. I always try and hire people who are smarter than I am," he says.

More to the Story

Although it takes many skills and traits to be a top CIO, the experts agree that this is still only a part of the equation. In order to be the best CIO, you have to be a problem-solver, have an enduring curiosity, and possess solid organisational and project management skills.

"The ideal personality is the type of person you'd see on ER, the type who can stay focused and undistracted no matter how noisy and distracting the background," says Burns.

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