IT directors can contribute to improving the company's performance
How many of the world's top 500 companies have IT directors on their main boards? The answer may shock you - it is less than 5%. And only 1% of those companies have chief executives who used to be chief information officers.
The figures, which come from research conducted by Burson-Marsteller earlier this year, showed that despite huge changes in the role of IT directors over the past 20 years, there is still a big gap in making it up to the very highest levels of management.
But things are not all bad. The research found that companies whose chief executives had been CIOs delivered annual returns 6.4% above the industry average. Recognition that IT directors have skills that can be taken to the top is growing, and there has been a shift in emphasis on what is expected from IT directors.
Abilities and skills
But what qualities and skills make a good IT director? Obviously, the immediate priority is the ability to run the IT effectively.
"There will be no credibility if the e-mail falls over every day," said John Handby, chief executive of CIO Connect, the networking group for IT directors and a former CIO with GlaxoSmithKline and the Royal Mail.
But IT directors also have to understand their own business and deal with the unique culture and politics of their own organisation. "If you have those two, you should be able to operate at a strategic level," said Handby.
"Business people want to be able to do things quickly and IT directors need to assess what the business is looking for, even if they cannot articulate that in IT terms. IT directors need to be ahead of the curve, to see things their colleagues cannot yet see and to take people with them."
Howell Huws, IT director at the South West London Strategic Health Authority, agreed that the chief criterion for success is aligning with the organisation.
"It is about understanding the business. Whether public or private, each organisation has different risks and issues. It is about managing expectations," he said.
Some believe that, to succeed, IT directors need to be able to take more risks but, according to Huws, "It is not about taking risks as such, but about being able to assess risk accurately and manage it.
"You have to get people's agreement to the risk assessment to make informed decisions and everyone looks to the IT director for that assessment."
Margaret Smith, director of business information systems at financial firm Legal and General, said IT directors need to understand their own business in far greater depth than was considered necessary a few years ago. She recommended that IT directors follow how other sectors are using IT.
"I like to read widely to see what other fields are doing with technology and how we might apply [their ideas]," she said.
But the aspect of being an IT director that has changed most, according to Smith, is the need to manage people effectively.
"To me, more than ever, the HR aspect is critical," she said. "When you are under pressure, you can lose sight of the people side, but it is the people that make [an IT department] - and you - successful."
Six steps to help CIOs scale the corporate ladder
Analyst firm Gartner has six steps it recommends to chief information officers who want to make more of an impression on those running their organisation. These are:
- Get mentoring and coaching
- Make time for relationship building
- Take on non-IT responsibilities
- Delegate: build up the strength of your deputies
- Educate yourself
- Educate your stakeholders.
But can the new skills needed by today's top IT directors be learned through training or experience, or do they have to be there naturally? Most experts believe this is the case, within limits.
"Some leadership skills can be learned, but some are inherent. You get more tuned in to the culture and the politics as you get older and you can work on communications skills," said John Handby of CIO Connect.
"I am sure you can learn a lot of the necessary skills. It all depends on the mindset. Some people just want to be techies," said Margaret Smith at Legal and General.
Sharm Manwani, head of information management of Henley Management College, said would-be IT directors should consider studying for an MBA to help develop business and management skills, but added that it was harder to learn leadership skills. "You cannot go beyond the maximum you are born with," he said.
Howell Huws, IT director at South West London Strategic Health Authority, said "It is often about getting out of an IT box and that is part of experience."
Dave Aron, research director at Gartner added, "You cannot change your natural style, but you can learn how to change your behaviour."
Rob Lambert, senior lecturer at the Cranfield School of Management, said IT directors could improve their communication skills with practice. "If you do not have very strong interpersonal skills you will be sidelined. These skills need to be practised and enhanced. You cannot make everyone do the 100m in 10 seconds, but you can make everyone faster."
Communication skills will take you to the top>>