Leadership Development /

Climbing the career ladder: 4 tips for today’s young IT executives who want to make it to the top

CIO article

In this article we explore the profile of the CIO – providing advice to junior IT professionals wishing to develop into the role. As well as discussing the CIO’s roles and responsibilities, we also highlight the key qualities recruiters look for – and the ever-changing demands of the position.

1- It will be a long journey, plan it ahead

CIO stands for Chief Information Officer, with the role of the CIO meaning or referring to the senior executive in charge of IT strategy, implementation, infrastructure and Information Security within the business.

The role of the CIO is a relatively new one, when compared to other support functions (e.g. HR, Legal, etc.), and is a product of the Information Age. It was born out of a growing need to manage information, as technology (and its use in business) continues to develop at a rapid pace and hyperconnectivity continues to increase. With computers, the internet, mobile communications and cloud technologies now fully adopted into the day to day operations of many large organisations, the role of the CIO is an all encompassing one – with both business and technical acumen carrying equal weight.

The role is a senior and complex position and you won’t get there overnight. You will need to stage your journey across several jobs – and possibly several companies. When you change jobs, always remember the old HR cliché that “it is always about the job after next”, and never lose sight of your end goal.

Stephen O’Donnell, author of What Every CIO Wants recommends that young IT professionals looking to advance their career “Ask CIOs for advice” within (or outside) their organisation. Sitting down with an executive with experience in the role will allow you to build a clearer picture of what the position entails and the CIO’s day to day activities.


2- Technology changes all the time; the top job you land in 10 years time may not resemble the top jobs of today

Today’s CIO job description is a complex one, and encompasses a broad range of responsibilities. At a base level, the CIO is responsible for delivering IT functionality across the business – something which they are always incentivised on. In addition to this, the CIO will also find themselves pulled into the boardroom in times of crisis – such as a cybersecurity breach. While a knowledge and background in the IT field is commonplace, the role is more about the application of technology to maintain and improve functionality across the business. This means making technology work, while keeping staff motivated in the face of constant business changes and keeping costs under control.

However, the CIO’s role is changing (and under pressure) due to the fast-paced evolution of technology over the past 10 years. At the coalface, a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is often in charge of all IT infrastructure aspects, but those have been heavily commoditised by Cloud services. Facing the business, two different types of CDO (Chief Digital/Data Officer) compete with the CIO in translating business needs into IT requirements and delivering them. A Chief Digital Officer helps the business embrace digital innovation and stay ahead of competition – and often, the Chief Data Officer is charged with helping the business make the most of the data it uses, monetising it where possible using Big Data technology.

Not all organisations use those terms, but they are becoming more and more common in large firms. Young IT executives must learn to navigate these waters and understand the dynamics between these different roles.

Edward Qualtrough, Online Editor for CIO UK advises aspiring IT professionals to attend valuable industry events, such as those hosted by CIO UK, in order to keep up to date with the latest industry trends.

3- There is no fixed career path, but you need to learn your trade

The role of the CIO is at the level of a senior executive in the organisation and involves numerous demanding challenges and responsibilities. Reaching this level requires determination, the right amount of experience and a number of personal qualities.

There is no fixed career path or entry point – however, the majority of today’s CIOs have spent much of their early and middle careers in the IT department.

Typical profiles include individuals with IT or technology based degrees and significant experience in the IT field, such as IT consulting or management – as well as other fields such as technology procurement. Experience in various areas of the IT team is essential for prospective CIOs to build a better understanding of how IT functions as part of the wider business – and this understanding will be critical to being successful in the role.

Young IT executives who want to develop towards a CIO type of position must acknowledge the different responsibilities the position will always entail. They must have a thorough understanding of how an IT department fits within, and contributes towards, the wider goals of the organisation.

This involves understanding the different angles of the role and how the priorities of one part of the IT team may conflict with those of the CIO.  For example, factors such as controls may be seen as restrictive rather than protective by many technologists – but implementing controls is a core part of the CIO’s role. It’s vital that the CIO has a good working knowledge of the whole IT department and is able to take a helicopter view of the bigger picture, instead of restricting thinking to individual business or technical silos.

Libby Phillipps, Marketing Manager at License Dashboard provides her advice for budding IT professionals keen to climb the career ladder:

“To say the world of IT is a busy one is perhaps a bit of an understatement. There are always deadlines to meet, projects to work on and problems to solve, so sparing time for professional development can be tricky.

Although having a reputation for excellent risk management and achieving results is essential, personal growth and knowledge of the latest developments in business or tech are possibly even more important. Pick an area you are particularly interested in, or an area in which you think you need to strengthen your capabilities and get to it. Find a course, attend a seminar or simply read around the subject. Keeping up with changes in IT is the only way to learn how those changes can be used in-house – as an IT professional, the last thing you want is to be left behind!”


4- Key management skills are and will remain key – you need to master them

There are a number of specific skills and qualities which make for a good CIO – and these are often the result of past career experience. Arming yourself with a proven track record of possessing these skills is likely to improve your chances of being considered for available CIO jobs or being headhunted by recruiters in the field.

Management skills are absolutely essential – and the more developed these are, the more successful candidates will be in a role that could potentially involve managing and delivering sizeable IT projects and big budgets in large organisations. While managing the organisation’s core IT function will always be a major part of the CIO’s role, the position is becoming less about technology and more about the people and process management aspects. Today’s CIO must focus on driving and delivering business functionality and managing relationships with key external vendors, rather than getting caught up in technical projects.

It goes without saying that CIOs need a good level of commercial awareness, specifically surrounding the latest technology developments and risks to their industry, and should be able to identify opportunities and threats as they emerge – always thinking on their feet.

With hyperconnectivity only continuing to increase, cyber criminals are offered more and more opportunities to break through traditional InfoSec barriers. Therefore, a strong understanding of these areas and an unquestionable commitment to controls should also be key. The CIO will have to maintain the right level of controls surrounding Information Security to close any vulnerability gaps and reduce risk to the business. In order to succeed, the CIO must have the personal gravitas and communication skills to be heard and influence change across an organisation – as they are likely to come up against deeply rooted organisational behaviours in the Security field which can be difficult to crack.

Strong people skills will also serve the CIO well – as they will often have large teams to manage and will also be involved in relationship management with external partners and third party vendors. Strong people and communication skills must go hand in hand and the CIO must be able to represent the IT wing of the organisation and present technical challenges and solutions to the board with clarity – speaking in the language of the business, rather than the language of IT. This has been seen in the past as a skill that technologists stereotypically lack.

Finally, sound financial awareness and negotiation skills are also vital – and should be expected from any person in a senior position and in charge of large budgets.

Phil Jordan, Global CIO at Telefonica shares his insight into what takes to be a successful CIO:

“Know your business inside-out and find the right way to communicate to both Biz/IT communities. Storytelling is king.”


Corix Partners

Contact Corix Partners to find out more about developing a successful Information Security Practice for your business. Corix Partners is a Boutique Management Consultancy Firm, focused on assisting CIOs and COOs in resolving Security Strategy, Organisation & Governance challenges.