What does the CEO want from you?

It's no good working your socks off if you're moving in the wrong direction. Julia Vowler talks to a leading headhunter about how to build influence and boost your career

It's no good working your socks off if you're moving in the wrong direction. Julia Vowler talks to a leading headhunter about how to build influence and boost your career

Every chief information officer knows what contribution they make to their organisation, but what do their chief executives want of them - especially when they are looking for a new CIO?

"I would love to say CEOs are looking for CIOs with bags of imagination and who are great leaders - but it would be a terrible lie," says CIO head-hunter Cathy Holley, a partner at executive search firm, Boyden.

"What they ask for depends on what they have had, and whether they think that worked. If it did then they tend to ask for more of the same, so I try to open their minds as to what they could have in a new CIO."

If, however, the CEO thinks the outgoing CIO did not work out, it is usually because the CEO thought that the CIO "asked for more budget, delivered nothing, was isolated and had poor communication skills," says Holley.

However, "A new CIO can change the perception of IT."

Typically, Holley's brief starts with a tick list from the CEO. "They will put down things like international skills or outsourcing experience. They may ask for sector-specific experience, or something particular like supply chain management experience.

"Very often they ask for technology-specific experience, such as AS400s, and I try and stop them there because at this level it cannot possibly be relevant for the role and so will limit their choice of candidates.

"However, most CEOs say to me 'Find me someone who can bring down costs and deliver effectively.' They want someone who can 'make things happen'."

This kind of brief is very generic - "just about any CIO at that level could do it".

But when dealing with the more enlightened CEOs, things get more interesting. "For example, I start to hear things like wanting a CIO with experience in organisational development, who can build teams to support new development, and who can show leadership in tough times."

The last criterion is challenging, because "outstanding motivational skills are very hard to find in the IT function as a whole," according to Holley.

CEOs also request strategic thinking, "but what they want is the ability for the CIO to tune in to the business, and understand what technology will be needed for that".

One very popular request is for a CIO with commercial acuity, "by which they usually mean, can they screw suppliers and keep to budget?"

Increasingly, Holley is finding that CEOs, especially in retail, banking and other fast-moving consumer goods companies, want CIOs who are "customer-centric, people who understand how technology can influence the behaviour of clients and customers. CEOs have finally twigged to the fact that CIOs are one of the few executives who can deliver on this."

With corporate-wide business transformation programmes increasingly the norm, experience in change management is also highly desirable. "CEOs want CIOs with experience of dynamic companies, and if they have been head of change management that is seen as a huge advantage," says Holley.

However, business transformation change management should not be confused with IT programme management.

"I am not interested in whether a candidate has implemented SAP in 80 countries in three days - that is a task for project managers," says Holley.

"I want to know what business value they extracted from implementing SAP. To know that, you have to have been in the job for at least two years, in order to have lived with the outcomes of what you have delivered."

Overall, experience should be more valued than any formal qualifications. "If a CEO stipulates any academic qualifications, such as an MBA, I stop them, as it will simply limit the pool of candidates in an artificial way."

Worryingly, however, Holley says that CEOs all too often limit the pool they are willing to fish from in other ways. "Although CEOs want CIOs with drive, passion and energy, they confuse that with youth, and see the ideal age for a CIO as 45."

But perhaps the most worrying brief she recalls is where the CEO asked for a CIO who would "focus on cost reduction, containment of demand and damage limitation, who thrived on chaos and was robust and resilient".

However, for CEOs that can come up with a more enticing brief, they can attract a top CIO. One who shows some distinguishing characteristics. Such as:

● They have a very strong personal brand. "They are good at what they do, and they know it. They are very visible in the organisation, and outside it, meeting shareholders and City analysts. They are highly presentable and are seen to be doing a very good job for the company."

● They have power and presence. "They possess gravitas and credibility, and have strong interpersonal skills. If I do not shortlist someone for a particular CIO role, it is more often than not because they lack that power and presence."

● They are hugely innovative. "For example, they know how to structure their team to get the best for the business, such as introducing remuneration based on the perception of IT by the business."

● They are strategic influencers. "I ask candidates to give me an example of when they have had to use their influence at senior level to really get something through, and by that I do not mean presenting a business case to the finance director," says Holley.

"What I mean is can they tune in to different people on the board, such as presenting well thought through numbers to the financial director, or coming across as more culturally and people-oriented to the human resources director, and appreciating that the CEO will respond to arguments and solutions to please shareholders and the City.

"This strategic influencing skill is one of the biggest weaknesses in the IT community, and those who do it well shine in their roles."

● They have expanded the CIO role. "They may have started in the corporate technology role, but they have expanded it," says Holley.

"They hunt around the organisation, and put their arms around something that is not being done, or not being done well, such as supply chain management. Crucially, they can also use technology to open up new channels and markets for the business."

This last characteristic can be vital for CIOs who intend to go to the very top of the corporate ladder, and become CEOs themselves.

One way to expand upon the basic CIO role is to leverage existing skills which may be underexploited. "CIOs, for example, probably know more about sourcing than anyone on the board, being expert in negotiation and contracts," says Holley.

"They can also expand into business strategy as a whole, as well as facilities management and areas typical of concern to a chief operating officer."

Another key way to leverage the role of the CIO, and gain invaluable board experience, is by being a non-executive director. Choose prudently, however, says Holley.

"The companies most interested in having a CIO as a non-executive are small technology companies and charities. Being a non-executive can be extremely fulfilling, but you must do your due diligence as they can go bust, and they can also be extremely needy of your time, so you do need to analyse just how much time they will take up."

But it is the issue of personal brand that CIOs really need to make a priority, and that can mean abandoning a familiar constraint within the IT profession. "Building a personal brand is really important, but IT people are not good at blowing their own trumpets. They need to improve on this."

Every CIO must know what the board, their peers and their own teams think of their strengths, weaknesses and potential. "Where are there differences in perception among these groups and why? How would you like to be perceived, and how can you alter others' perceptions of you?"

CIOs need to answer rigorously the following crunch questions, says Holley. "Are you seen as a leader or a follower, strategic or tactical, business-centric or technology-led, commercially astute or naïve, politically aware or ignorant, head of a value-adding function or a cost centre, and is it seen as improving or deteriorating?

"Above all, are you seen by the board as 'one of us' or 'one of them' - are you integrated with the business, or isolated from it?"

The issue of being "one of us" is ­subtle, but crucial, because it is where the heart of corporate power lies. "There is always an inner sanctum on almost every board," says Holley.

"Typically it will be the CEO, the ­financial director, and at least one of the non-executive directors. Usually, the CIO is not part of it.

"Often a CIO does not even know there is an inner sanctum, and does not realise that by the time the board meeting takes place, the decisions have all been taken already, and the board meeting is just to rubber stamp them.

"But if one of its members comes along to 'bounce a few ideas off you before the board meeting', then you know you have made it to the inner sanctum."

Value-added skills

CEOs look for CIOs with a range of generic, specific and business leadership skills.

  • Specific skills from international experience, sector experience and technology experience
  • Cost reduction
  • Effective IT delivery
  • Organisational development and team building skills
  • Leadership and motivational skills
  • Commercial acuity
  • Strategic thinking for business alignment
  • Customer-centric thinking to exploit technology to open new markets and influence customer behaviour
  • Business transformation change management experience.

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