Guidelines for Hiring a New CIO

Hiring a CIO

A quick list of suggestions for interviewing and hiring a new CIO…

  • CIOs are a bit like NFL coaches, who begin as either Offense or Defense specialists.  Generally we come up either the applications/data or the operations/infrastructure/security side of the career ladder.  Some may have experience in a smaller company on both sides, but they may have blind spots or not have a mature framework to think about the role.  This difference is greatly reduced once someone has been a CIO, because if they’re smart, they likely climbed the learning curve quickly on the other side once they got that responsibility.
  • Most of the issues first-time CIOs often experience occur in leadership/culture, or from the “other side of the ball” where they’re weakest.  So if you’re targeting a first timer, it’s often wise to choose someone from the side where your company feels weakest.  e.g. if your systems are stable and secure, but none of the reports are very useful, look for a candidate with an applications/data background.
  • If the other side of the ball has a good “coordinator” who’s put you in a good position, you may want to give them assurances of support.  I’ve seen good people leave if they feel “passed over” or threatened by a new CIO with a very different background.
  • In my experience, applications & data leaders are more likely to align strategy to the business’ positioning vs. seeing technical objectives as equally important as growth/capability targets.  It’s not always true but there’s usually more of a “tech purist” heart in infrastructure/operations/security types which led them to those interests early in their career, vs. a “tech impact” heart in applications/data people.
  • Engaging an experienced consultant for the CIO transition can be a wise investment to give the new CIO a sounding board and advisor who’s been around the block seeing both sides of the ball, especially if there are major turnaround issues, culture challenges, etc.
  • Separate from the decision on a transition consultant, unless the candidate comes in with a proven track record/references as a CIO, you will absolutely want to engage an IT leader/expert to interview a CIO candidate to make sure their tech approach is sound

Once you’ve determined the pedigree to target in the ideal candidate, consider the non-technical skills and attributes which actually are likely far more impactful to their success in the role of CIO:

  • Leadership skills – ultimately, leading IT is about leading IT people.  Servant leadership and humility, in particular, are key strengths for an incoming CIO.
  • Mentorship skills – this one is often neglected or assumed covered by leadership skills, but in IT specifically I believe mentoring and coaching are critical to elevate the team’s performance.
  • Communication skills – of course CIOs have to get their messages across successfully, but this skill comes with a CIO-specific challenge of tailoring their written/verbal message to a business or technical audience depending on the context, and ensuring both stay aligned on expectations.
  • Cultural fit – do they see the role of IT the same as the company leadership?  Do they view teamwork, collaboration, and work ethic in the same way?
  • Collaborative style – CIOs need to be able to win support for their vision, the budget and investments needed to achieve it.  Collaborating with business leadership is far more likely to yield this support vs. an ivory tower approach.
  • A business-minded approach – CIOs are far more likely to succeed who set IT strategy in the context of the overall business strategy, and who use business terminology to communicate their technical plans.  This helps bridge understanding generally between CIOs and other C-suite leadership; without using a business lexicon a CIO remains “in a different world” from the rest of leadership, who (in most companies) can far more easily comprehend each other’s responsibilities than they can understand the work of leading an IT department.
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