7 Things CEOs want in a CIO

It's not enough to just get the boss the latest gadgets. Anymore.

For all the IT/business crossover during the past 10 years, there's still a gulf between the knowledge, roles and expectations of the three key people in the C-Suite: the CEO, the CFO and the CIO (yes, the others matter, but we're limited by licensing costs on the number of C-level three-letter-acronyms we can use in any one sentence).

The stereotype of a CIO who can't communicate with non-techs is obsolete; plenty of CIOs come from outside IT specifically because of their management and communication skills.

Skills such as building consensus, negotiating and engaging both stakeholders and stockholders are key to any CIO's success, according to CIOs interviewed by CIO.com for advice.

CFOs and CIOs have to see eye to eye on most things, if only because the CFO has a greater ability to poke those eyes that don't focus quite right.

In most cases it's the CEO who sets the expectations of what role any of the other Cs should play and what skills or experience they should have to be worth the big salary and the big chair in the boardroom.

Advice on what CEOs want from CIOs usually filters out into what CIOs should buy or implement.

The key isn't product, though. It's not even technology.

It's what value you can bring to the table. (That, by the way, is corporate-speak for what you can do for the CEO to make him or her more successful, less stressed and more obviously capable to two audiences: employees inside the company, and everyone outside it.)

Some of what the CEO looks for is direct support in various forms.

Much of the rest he or she will describe in corporate terms that can be maddening to technologists more comfortable with their own version of gobbledygook.

Here, from CIO UK's interviews with search firms CEOs use to find CIO candidates, are the seven skills CEOs want you to deliver:

1. Stand up to the stress test

Simple to say, hard to do. Increasingly IT is the fulcrum the rest of the company uses to get its load off the ground, or not. Being crushed by the first failure – or allowing yourself to be replaced by someone or something else following one – is not a harbinger for success.

2. Have a good radar for risk

Play it safe and you'll never deliver anything that provides a real advantage; too close to the bleeding edge and you'll get everything messy while the business units are trying to use what you've built to actually do their work.

3. Become immersed in the global geopolitical ecosystem

CEOs of global companies have to build relationships with governments, regulators and shareholders in many countries. CIOs should be able to do so as well, especially for tech-heavy projects or new businesses. That requires a comfort level and familiarity with more than one part of the world. Not a great strength for most Americans.

4. Be willing to scrap old business models

More a privilege of the CEO than the CIO, but IT enables almost any change. If you can't make information, data and workers agile enough to shift gears or change directions, you're holding up the works, not helping them move more effectively.

5. Be able to innovate your way into productivity gains

Agility, productivity, efficiency are the keys to making an existing business model work better. Make end users more effective and the business units will be more effective; make business units more effective and the company overall will improve. Don't wait to be asked.

6. Take governance seriously

Infrastructure isn't just the stuff in the walls anymore. IT is as key a part of the operations of a big company as Finance or Manufacturing. Ninety-percent of what goes on in any well-managed organization is routine. Create and document procedures for all the routine stuff; it will make compliance, training and budgeting easier. Build in short-cuts for the 10 percent that are emergencies, rush jobs or responses to the unexpected. Creating routines is good; being stuck in ruts is bad.

7. Have a purpose

Being the one in a board meeting who can define TLA, or say whether iPhones will or won't work with your Salesforce.com apps isn't enough to justify your seat there. CIOs have to be able to contribute new concepts, new business ideas, demonstrate a real grasp of the finance and logistics the rest of the company struggles with, and own issues that affect the whole company but strike IT first – customer privacy, compliance, technology risk, information security.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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