February 24, 2014

I get this question all the time: What should I focus on if I want to be a CIO someday? The answer is complicated and doesn't always please the person who asked.

You must understand technology, of course, but most of what it takes to become an effective CIO has nothing to do with technology. The better question to ask is: Which skills do most CEOs want their CIOs to have?

So let's discuss what your boss will expect of you. Here's where it gets complicated. Regardless of whether the CIO reports to the CEO, has a dotted line to the CEO, or is married to and has children with the CEO, the CEO is your ultimate boss. And the CEO very much cares about the folks who run other mission-focused business units: your peers. To make matters more complex, those peers are also your customers. Thus, the first of the expectations of a CIO:

1. Customer management

A great CEO will want you to impact the business positively, through new products, re-engineering, automation, etc. But the CEO doesn't want you causing problems with people who rely on you. Call them your peers or your customers, your boss still doesn't want problems.

It's not about being a yes man or woman. Nor is it about being a pit bull -- those kinds of conflicts land right in the CEO's lap. It's about being able to have difficult conversations when IT screws up, and admitting to those screw-ups. Or being able to point out, constructively, when line departments are causing problems, like when they change requirements 12 times during the course of a project.

You need to resolve those kinds of problems without most of them rising up to Mom or Dad, because if your CEO is spending most of his or her time brokering your little conflicts, expect your tenure to be short.

Required development: diplomacy and emotional intelligence. Pompous jerks need not apply.

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