7 ways to win the CIO role you covet

You’re working hard to win a CIO role, but are you taking the right steps? Here’s how to grow your appeal, stand out among candidates, and land that job
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So, you want to be a CIO? The top IT spot looks more attractive than ever for professionals driven to make a difference in the digital era. We’ve come a long way from “career is over:” The CIO in many organizations is a key executive, helping to chart strategy and oversee execution of digital transformation initiatives.

Of course, that means you’ll have significant competition for the CIO role – not only from fellow IT professionals but also from up-and-coming business leaders who have their eyes on the position.

[ Are you known for having high or low EQ? See our related story, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

In addition, the qualifications and experience requirements companies seek in their new CIO hires are greater than ever. It’s no longer enough to have toiled for a certain number of years in the IT function. Today’s CIO needs business acumen, a deep understanding of the customer, and the ability to influence the larger organization – for a start.

If you’re interested in this prominent role, learn how to better prepare yourself for that future and make your aspirations and experience clear in the market. Consider these seven to-do items for aspiring CIOs:

1. Get closer to customers

Smart CIOs have long been proactive about understanding the needs of their IT customers within the organization. But today’s CIOs also have a vested interest in ensuring that the end customers – from whom all revenues flow – are happy. In fact, “more CEOs are promoting their CIOs to become Chief Customer Officer or P&L leaders,” says Katie Ross, a recruiting partner at Heller Search Associates, an executive search firm specializing in CIOs and other senior IT roles nationwide. “That means hiring managers ideally want someone with strong potential to grow out of the CIO role and be more customer-facing from the start.”  

Those who want to inhabit the CIO role must develop experience around customers, whether by developing key customer-facing applications, mapping out customer journeys with marketing and product teams, or meeting with customers to understand requirements and new products. “Back-office functions will always be important, but engaging customers with digital technology is the next game-changer,“ Ross says.

2. Find a CIO mentor and meet regularly

“Mentorship, especially when looking to transition to a C-level role, is integral to a professional’s career development,” says Randi Weitzman, senior vice president for Robert Half Technology. Would-be CIOs cannot rely on their own bosses alone to provide them with the guidance they need to advance their careers as IT leaders, particularly if they are reporting to a CIO or other leader with little interest in or time for grooming. “We tell candidates who are CIO-track to ensure that they have a CIO mentor, be it within or outside of their own organization, to meet with on a regular basis – we encourage monthly meetings – in order to roadmap their careers,” says Weitzman. (See our related story: 7 habits of highly effective IT mentors.)

3. Take on the CIO role before someone gives it to you

Find the right assignments and projects, because practice makes perfect. CIOs need to stay on top of technology trends, particularly in the areas of data and security. They must be trusted business partners. They can oversee enterprise initiatives in their sleep. They can recruit and manage an IT leadership team. They contribute to the top and bottom lines. These are all capabilities that those with CIO aspirations must possess going into the job, says Weitzman.

For those hoping to advance to the CIO role, it’s critical to stay abreast of broad technology trends, develop relationships with business leaders, have experience overseeing enterprise-wide projects that have saved either time and money or generated revenue for an organization; and be heavily networked within the community of IT professionals.

As Optima CIO Jason James recently advised aspiring CIOs: Your tech chops still matter.

4. Build your business acumen

“The best conversations I have with CIOs are when I forget that I’m talking to the CIO,” says Chuck Gray, consultant and CIO practice group leader for Egon Zehnder. Anyone who plans to be a CIO must deeply understand the business and how the technology organization impacts it.

“For aspiring CIOs, it’s important to remember that at some point, your ability to rise to the top job is less about your technical expertise and more about your ability to impact the business going forward,” Gray says. “Do you understand the strategy? Do you know how to build a team and generate followership? As a CIO, you have to be able to influence and collaborate.”

As ServiceNow CIO Chris Bedi puts it, any successful CIO must embody three personas: communicator, salesperson, and influencer.


Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.